Spring has arrived in the Northern Hemisphere. The cherry trees have come into blossom, here in the Pacific Northwest, where I am writing, and in Japan, where the esteemed director Isao Takahata has died at the age of 82. In 1985, he cofounded Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki. Together they are responsible, they perhaps more than anyone else, for making anime a force in global popular culture.
It feels strange to me, news of Takahata’s death, having recently watched The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, the 2013 documentary on Studio Ghibli, filmed during the making of The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, the last feature made by each of the directors, Miyazaki and Takahata respectively.
The latter is portrayed as a somewhat shadowy figure, his presence more alluded to than shown. Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki constantly fret about their colleague, about whether he will complete his movie at all.
The documentary ends with Miyazaki announcing his retirement. The last scene shows him strolling along a leafy street, his work behind him. Nothing more is said about The Tale of Princess Kaguya or its director. It’s as if Takahata has vanished from the earth.
Thoughts of mortality often attend the death of public figures, but watching The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness also got me thinking about anime itself, about my own conflicted feelings toward the artform.
I grew up consuming Japanese animation through VHS tapes, pirated or expensive imports, through late night cable television specials, through half hour increments amongst otherwise nondescript Saturday cartoons. Even with these inauspicious beginnings, I quickly began to understand its tropes, its conventional imagery.
Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time watching anime will understand what I’m talking about. They will recognize when a character secretes a single gigantic sweat drop, and what that means. They will recognize when a character grows a pair of small catlike fangs, and what that means.
In the time spent writing this brief article, Isao Takahata has died and the cherry trees have come into full flower. They have blossomed; their petals are now dropping to the ground: a conventional image but a true one.
I grew up with anime, but have, at various times in my life, abandoned it, finding its artifice and juvenility boring, even hateful. In this, at least, I’m in good company. Miyazaki has complained along those same lines; he has complained about anime, his artform of choice, complained at length and eloquently.
The problem, according to him, is that Japanese animation is primarily made by and for otaku, a word that carries none of the recent positive associations that geek has acquired in English.
Otaku cannot draw airplanes, for instance, because they are enamored with smalltime questions about performance and design, ignoring purpose. A machine like the Mitsubishi Zero, the famous World War II era fighter, subject of The Wind Rises, cannot be shown in isolation, a mere device with interesting characteristics, a set of qualities such as range and airspeed. You have to tackle the implications of Japanese militarism, the massive devastation it brought, to depict the Zero with any depth.
Otaku cannot draw women, for instance, because they spend their day with poor simulacra, male idealizations, rather than persons with their own minds and their own agency. Whether you can draw like this or not, Miyazaki says, being able to think up this kind of design, depends on whether or not you can say to yourself, Oh, yeah, girls like this exist in real life.
Here is a rich and useful irony: the preeminent fantasist of the last forty years insists on art based on reality; he insists on art based on real people and real things. It’s an attitude against the times, as Miyazaki knows well.
In a fascinating scene, shot at night in his private studio, the director muses about life, about the nature of dreams. He says, echoing a line in The Wind Rises, that humanity’s dreams have become cursed somehow. Most of the world is rubbish, he says. It’s impossible to make a worthwhile movie.
Miyazaki is identifying with Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero, whose life he fictionalized in The Wind Rises. A conflicted member of the Japanese defense establishment, Horikoshi saw his nation’s militarism as inhumane and self-destructive. That didn’t matter in the end. The war proceeded; millions died; his scruples were of no help.
Takahata made his own movie about the war, Grave of the Fireflies. It follows two siblings, a sister and brother, four-year-old Setsuko and fourteen-year-old Seita, as they struggle to survive in the months leading up to Japan’s surrender.
The children are innocent, innocent in an utterly conventional but useful sense: both are too young to participate in the war; neither is culpable for the suffering inflicted by the Japanese military. They are innocent but not perfect. Their destitution comes partially out of pride, an inability to get along with relatives, a lack of basic life skills.
Seita and Setsuko are tragic, more tragic than Jiro Horikoshi, not only because of their lack of culpability, but because they are fictional creations, innocent to the right degree, imperfect to the right degree. It takes art to make suffering interesting.
The children are tragic because we know their fate. The first scene shows Seita succumbing to starvation. Setusko, already passed on, looks at her brother through a cloud of fireflies. We know their fate and our emotional reaction to it. It takes art to make sustained suffering interesting.
Fireflies and cherry blossoms: the symbolism isn’t hidden. The truths they speak, about the transience of nature, about ourselves as objects in nature, can be intuited without the aid of essays or commentary tracks.
Here we are at the end, at this dichotomy, at the source of ambivalence. Conventional images can trivialize. But they are also a source of great immediate pleasure, which is not nothing, and also a source great storytelling, of great visual poetry, which is something even more consequential.
Miyazaki is still alive; his friend and colleague, Isao Takahata has died. They made their last films together, in collaboration and in competition. They worked despite their doubts, despite their misgivings, which can only end when all things end.
Matthew Spencer is a essayist and fiction writer. He was born in Cortez, where the states of Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico converge. He now lives in Seattle. His writing has appeared in deCOMP, Asymptote Journal, Necessary Fiction, and Brainwashed Magazine. He is currently at work on a novel.