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Why Must Fireflies Die So Young? A Tribute to Isao Takahata, 1935–2018

Very sad news: Indiewire has reported that Isao Takahata, co-founder of Studio Ghibli, has died at the age of 82. Although he did not enjoy as much universal name recognition compared to his Ghibli partner, the great Hayao Miyazaki, Takahata was very much Miyazaki’s equal as a master filmmaker, each crafting exceptional films with profoundly humanist themes that represent the absolute zenith of what the animated medium could ever achieve.

Thirty years ago, the fledgling Ghibli produced and released two films together in one of the more tonally divergent double features you could ever see. My Neighbor Totoro, directed by Miyazaki, is an ebullient icon of the child-centric whimsy and wonder that is pervasive in his oeuvre. In contrast, Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, adapted from an autobiographical mea culpa, is anything BUT ebullient: an absolutely devastating, harrowing journey of a young brother and sister trying to survive in World War II-ravaged Japan. Totoro unsurprisingly became the mascot for the studio and a huge merchandising hit. Meanwhile, Grave of the Fireflies achieved a somewhat different reputation.

My first watch of Grave of the Fireflies came in March 2013, and although as a somewhat informed anime fan I knew of its notoriety as “one of the most depressing films ever,” I was totally unprepared for the emotional ride I was in for over the next 90 minutes. Needless to say, I was a soggy, devastated wreck at the end of it (and even frantically called my little sister to tell her how much I loved her, likely much to her confusion). I then spent the next week in a depressed, self-reflective funk, trying to process what I just watched. I quickly came to realize, however, that what Takahata achieved was monumental and transcendent. The deeply resonant themes combined with gorgeous, painterly animation – not only was Grave of the Fireflies one of the greatest animated films I had ever seen (of which I’d say only WALL-E and Pinocchio would be in the same tier), it was one of the greatest films ever, full stop.

Fireflies

Not long after my first experience with Fireflies, Roger Ebert ultimately lost his battle with cancer. While revisiting some of his older reviews, I was elated to find a “Great Movies” entry for Grave of the Fireflies, where he extolled its virtues “as an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.” Praise from Ebert doesn’t really get much higher than that, friends, and Ebert really went to bat for Fireflies.

The rest of Takahata’s filmography at Ghibli was varied and uniformly excellent: from the quirky family portrait My Neighbors the Yamadas, to the hilarious pro-environment tale about mischievous racoons, Pom Poko, to the wistfully moving coming-of-age drama, Only Yesterday, to the tone poem fable that finally landed Takahata’s first (and perplexingly only) Oscar nomination, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. A diverse slate of films — all accomplished works that demonstrate Takahata’s penchant for empathy and introspection and worthy counterparts to the many Ghibli masterpieces Miyazaki created over the same period.

Isao Takahata was unequivocally a giant in film, leaving behind a brilliant cinematic legacy with few equals. His death is a huge loss for Ghibli fans, anime lovers, and cinema in general.