The worlds of animation and world cinema have lost a master: director Isao Takahata has died at the age of 82. Takahata began directing in the ’60s, and worked on adaptations of western stories like Heidi and Anne of Green Gables as well as the first TV adaptation of the Lupin III manga. But in 1988, he directed Grave of the Fireflies for the fledgling Studio Ghibli, which he’d co-founded with fellow director Hayao Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki.
Inspired by a true story, Grave of the Fireflies is the heartbreaking tale of two siblings trying to survive in post-World War 2 Japan. The film is a masterpiece in every sense of the word and easily one of the saddest, most heartbreaking films you’ll ever see. In his review, Roger Ebert called it “an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation” and concluded that “it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made.”
Following Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata directed the poignant Only Yesterday (1991), a gentle melodrama about a woman trying to reconcile her childhood memories and longings with her adult responsibilities. Eschewing many of the magical and fantastical elements that Studio Ghibli films are so well-known for, Only Yesterday is far more more naturalistic and down-to-earth (and has one of my favorite ending scenes of all time).
Takahata’s other Ghibli titles include Pom Poko (1994), My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) and his final film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), which he spent more than four years making and is the most expensive Japanese movie ever made.
In recent years, there’s been some speculation concerning Studio Ghibli’s future. Much of this was due to the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki (though he’s since come back out of retirement to work on a new film). While the studio’s future is looking brighter these days, due to collaborative projects like Ronja the Robber’s Daughter and The Red Turtle, the passing of one of its founders is undoubtedly a shock.
Put simply, Isao Takahata is irreplaceable. The artistry and humanism on display in Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday aren’t just beautiful to behold, they actually make you a better person for having experienced them. That’s a rare gift, and one I’m thankful that Isao Takahata had in such abundance.