Saturday, 10 September 2011

Clash of the Ghibli Titans: Miyazaki vs Takahata

If any of you have seen me around on Anime-Planet or have heard the recent episode of O-Talk on Miyazaki, you'll know that I am a complete Studio Ghibli fangirl. Their films were some of the earliest anime I watched; in fact I saw Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke before I was really aware of what anime was. There are many things that I love about the Ghibli body of work, and I will likely go into that at a later date. For now, though I want to take a look at the two behemoth directors and founders of the studio, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and how their works compare.


When it comes to fantastical worlds, mythical beasts and magic, there is one Ghibli master, and that is Hayao Miyazaki. His philosophy on making movies is to entertain children, pure and simple, and that's exactly what he does. Part of what really nurtured my love for the studio is that in watching one of the films, I could disappear off into another world for a couple of hours and that's precisely what Miyazaki achieves. He can take you on an adventure, entertain children and make adults unleash their inner kids. When I think of my favourite Miyazaki works, they're all innocent and magical. In my mind, My Neighbour Totoro is possibly one of the best examples of this. While some may suggest otherwise, Totoro is all about the innocence of childhood and that we need not grow up too fast, but embrace the vivid colours of our imaginations. Instead of denying ourselves the possibility that magical beings exist, we should give in, clamber up on Totoro's back and fly in the sky.

Meanwhile, the closest that Takahata comes to escapism in his films is Pom Poko, with its cute Tanuki (shape-changing racoon dogs) behaving in a mischievous manner. However, that the movie is portrayed as a documentary means that some of the fantastical element is soon lost.

Winner: Miyazaki

He may have a large mouth, but wouldn't you want to snuggle up to Totoro on a cold, rainy night?


While Miyazaki romps home to victory in the category of escapism and fantasy, there's one clear winner when it comes to maturity in their work, and that's Takahata. That isn't to say that Miyazaki doesn't appeal to an older audience, far from it. His works are enjoyed by children, adults and the elderly alike. While the likes of My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service are more childlike in nature, some of his films do contain more mature aspects. Most noticeably these occur in his most serious works: Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. With overarching themes of environmentalism, human responsibility and war, there's plenty to make the viewers think. Additionally, Princess Mononoke is a far more violent and bloody film. Our first glimpse of San's face is seeing it covered in blood, Ashitaka frequently decapitates or permanently disables his enemies with precision archery skills, and certainly, shots such as a demonic boar's flesh melting from its bones would be enough to disturb any young viewers (though I got scared of the Skeksis emperor's death scene in The Dark Crystal when I was a kid, so maybe I'm just a wuss).

However, while Princess Mononoke may be a far more adult film - I certainly wouldn't show it to any young child - in terms of maturity, Takahata wins hands down. Certainly when I think of the most grown up Ghibli films, the top two I'd list would be Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday. In particular, Only Yesterday is a quiet masterpiece.  The film focuses on an older central character - as opposed to Miyazaki's preference for child protagonists - who is dissatisfied with life and begins to look back on her younger days. The  juxtaposition between her more demure older self and the bratty behaviour of her childhood resonates with any working adult who finds their life utterly unlike anything they'd hoped for or dreamed of as kids. And it does this with a gentle grace and beauty that may not be able to be appreciated by a younger audience. Similarly, the tragic tale in Grave of the Fireflies is better suited to an older viewer. Possibly one of the most depressing moies ever made, it tells a tale of complete hopelessness and despair where the hopes of two young children get repeatedly shoved in the mud and kicked around. It's beautiful, but utterly heartbreaking and carried out in such a way that it makes you think. It's not entertainment, more a reminder that life is not always fair and there are many strands of society that get abandoned and forgotten, especially during times of crisis.

Winner: Takahata

Quiet and understated, Only Yesterday is like a coming-of-age tale for adults.


Undoubtedly, Studio Ghibli isn't at the forefront of experimental animation. Though the studio's techniques and overall quality are of a supremely high standard, they aren't known for breaking the mould; in fact there's a designated "Ghibli look" that graces their films. Miyazaki in particular has extremely recognisable character designs and has often been criticised for re-using characters across his various movies. Even outside of the visuals, Miyazaki doesn't tend to experiment with the format of his stories particularly much, and considering that he primarily aims his films at a younger audience, keeping the story in a clear and linear format is a much better idea.

On the flip side, Takahata's films are generally far more different to any of the other Ghibli works. In a visual sense there's no denying that the only Ghibli film that DOESN'T look like a Ghibli film is My Neighbours the Yamadas. In this, Takahata experiments with a looser and more watercolour-esque style that's nicely suited to the sketch-like format. And that Yamadas is essentially like a series of sketches is another factor that sets it apart from the other works. This film is basically "Ghibli does slice-of-life" and boy does it do it well. Takahata certainly takes more risks with his works in terms of format. Pom Poko is set up as a faux-documentary, Only Yesterday flips between present day and days of nostalgia to show the growth of a single woman at a pivotal point in her life, and Grave of the Fireflies is told entirely in flashback. That Takahata frequently goes against the grain is wholly impressive, especially as he manages to do it without getting too experimental and becoming "un-Ghibli".

Winner: Takahata

A complete detour from the standard "Ghibli look" but the minimalistic style of Yamadas really suits the content.

International Appeal:

When you look at the setting and content of both directors’ works, they vary significantly. Specifically, Takahata's films are inherently Japanese; they’re all set in a realistic Japan and focus on Japanese culture and history. His animations play out almost like an ode to his homeland, celebrating the richness the country has to offer. Unfortunately, by making his films very Japan-heavy, this reduces the international appeal of his works as a certain knowledge of the culture is required to fully appreciate the movies. A prime example of this is his 1994 offering, Pom Poko. Set around the housing development of Tama Hills (which, incidentally, is a real place), the film looks at many of Japan’s mythology and youkai (demons). While it is possible to enjoy the cute little film about raccoons causing michief, one can only fully appreciate how impressive the anime is if you are familiar with the youkai and fairy tales found within. On a personal note, when I first saw the film I wasn't bowled over by it, but after learning more about youkai and Japanese fairytales, I watched it again, and I soon became enamoured with it.

Conversely, Miyazaki’s movies are mainly set in either a western environment (Porco Rosso - Italy, Howl's Moving Castle - industrial revolution Anglo-European realm, Kiki's Delivery Service - a Germanic-style town) or in a fantastical Japan - think Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Using a more familiar setting, westerners unfamiliar with anime can easily find their footing and enjoy the tale to it’s fullest. Likewise by taking a more fantastical approach to his work, even when his films are set in his homeland, knowledge of the culture isn’t necessary. Ignoring the setting however, Miyazaki's more light-hearted and entertaining approach (obviously I'm not including Princesss Mononoke or Nausicaa here) makes for better family viewing and while Takahata's films are brilliant in their own right, they exude a sense of maturity that would be less likely to engage casual viewers.

Winner: Miyazaki

Miyazaki's use of European architecture helps western audiences find their feet.

When it comes to making a judgement about which of these two directing legends is best, it's beyond difficult. Ultimately, the only judgement anyone can make is purely personal. For me, as much as I love the understated grace of Takahata's works, my adoration of Miyazaki's fantastical tales of Totoro, dragon spirits, flying pigs and wizards wins out.

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