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An Interview with Isao Takahata

By Cedric Littardi
AnimeLand (a French anime fanzine), issue #6 (July/August 1992) pages 27-29

Translated from French to English by Ken Elescor in October, 1993
Edited by Steven Feldman

© 1992 by AnimeLand
Translated without permission for personal entertainment purpose only. This is not, by any means, an accurate word for word translation, and the translator is solely responsible for any mistranslation or misunderstanding due to it.

Translator's message:

Nausicaa was first shown in France at the 13th cinema festival [Festival of Children's Animation], at Corbeil-Essonnes (in 1992), along with Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, Kiki, OPP, Laputa and Goshu the Cellist (Serohiki no Gooshu). Takahata-san was even there!

So, this is a translation of Takahata-san's interview. [...]

This is done without the explicit authorization of the article's author; however I think there is no problem since my friend Cao Olivier [...] is a member of the staff of the magazine AnimeLand.

Thanks to Cedric Littardi, Mr. Takahata and Mrs. Ueki, manager of the Ucore Company (which helped in bringing us the festival). And to Olivier Cao for lending me his magazine (and having helped in its translation). And to Steven for correcting my errors, and to everyone on the Nausicaa newsgroup who read my translation.


Mr. Isao Takahata was without a doubt the main personality at the Corbeil-Essonnes festival. Our meeting was quite surprising (in fact, I think I was the one who was really surprised). I met him in the second evening during the official days of the festival, at the dinner. He showed such an interest for everything which surrounds him, such a sensibility and such a curiosity that I don't know if I could call these pages an interview. As far as I'm concerned, I rather felt it as a situation of confrontation between two cultures, each one giving proof of a very deep curiosity towards the other. I don't know if, writing it down, I could give you this feeling which expresses itself in his whole behaviour and not only in his speech. For instance, he recorded some of our talks with a beautiful miniaturized Sony radio set, perhaps to study French language when he'd be back in Japan (come to that, this gave me the occasion to be quoted in ANIMAGE). Doing that, he showed the extreme relativity of our respective parts. In a way, he was inverting the parts of the interviewer and the interviewee.

Perhaps the first thing to do is to describe him to you. Physically, he looks like a standard 50-year-old -- maybe younger -- Japanese man, a little smaller than the average. He spends a lot of time smoking. (Philippe LHOSTE said: "I saw Mr. Takahata stand up to take an ashtray. I'll be able to tell it to my grandchildren!")[1] Moreover, he has a deep voice, talks little, and thinks silently for a long time when asked a question before answering, which doesn't prevent him from asking for the question to be repeated as soon as his curiosity is awakened. Isao Takahata is the main lead of Studio Ghibli, along with his friend and colleague Hayao Miyazaki. He is the great author of Serohiki no Goshu (Goshu the Cellist), Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies) and Omohide Poro Poro (Falling Tears of Remembrance).

I met this exceptional man at table while he was coming back from the location from whence comes the famous rose of Versailles. After a few brief presentations during which I talked with him about European paronama, we began the present discussion.


Key to the dialog
T: Isao Takahata
I: Interviewer Cedric Littardi

I: Mr. Takahata, I quite admire Japanese animation in general. It's why I'd first like to know what your favourite anime are, besides the ones you or Mr. Miyazaki produced.

T: To tell the truth, I don't really have time to watch my contemporaries' anime. My work keeps me very busy and allows me little time to do anything else. On the other hand, I'd like to know what you'd answer if you were in my place.

I: I admit this is a delicate question. If I excepted Studio Ghibli's works, I'd pick the spectacular Honneamise no Tsubasa (The Wings of Honneamise) produced by Gainax. Do you know this work?

T: Yes, I know it. I've already had an occasion to watch it.

I: And, did you enjoy it?

T: -pause- No, not really.

I: Oh?! And why?

T: I'd like to get a better understanding of why you admire this work so much.

I: It is not evident to explain. Perhaps, because it is a wonderful science-fiction work, produced in a exceptional way, with deep and expressive characters who experience a spectacular evolution. Moreover, there is this parallel world, created in a very accurate way, even in the very details. It is true that it is very different from your own works. Is that why you don't like it?

T: I'd simply say that it is a matter of personal taste.

I: Nonetheless, there should be some anime which had influenced you. Which ones induced you to do this job?

T: I have to say that I'm very happy to be in France because it is a country I really like.[2] My career perhaps began thanks to my admiration for Paul Grimault. That's why I'm very glad to be able to show my movies here.

I: How do you place yourself in comparison with the international reference in matter of anime, i.e. Walt Disney?

T: I really enjoyed the first ones -- namely, Fantasia, Pinocchio and Snow White. But my own sensibility gradually and naturally took me away from the Disney Studios' full length films.

I: So, which are the works which influenced you the most?

T: Well, I quite admire the Canadian, Frederick Back, and the Russian, Yuri Norstein.

I: Then, why don't you try to use similar drawing techniques (i.e. cut pieces of paper or pastel drawings)?

T: It's simply a question of money. Their techniques are much more expensive than ours, much more conventional. That's why they are not used in Japan; production costs would be too high.

I: You said that you like European cinematography. Did it influence you?

T: Yes, that's right, I watched many European films and especially French ones. They help me a lot to obtain such a result in my work.

I: However, some of your full-length films, in particular the splendid Omohide Poro Poro, could have been done as live films. So you chose to make them anime films to convey visual expressions, to express emotions, feelings, that you'd never be able to reach with actors in the cinematographic reality.

T: That is exactly what I intended to do in Omohide Poro Poro, and I'm very glad you realized that.

I: Congratulations! You were really successful in doing it.

T: This is possible. I'd have something else to say to you about what inspired me, as well as any other anime producer in Japan. But, for this, I need some documents. So, I'll tell you about it tomorrow.

I: I really thank you for this. About the production, I'd like to know exactly which are the respective roles you and Mr. Miyazaki play, since in Europe, there is a tendency to confuse your two works and to accredit them to your colleague.

T: Yet, there is a noticeable difference. You don't see it because you don't speak Japanese.

I: Did you work on some series like Shojo Alps no Heiji (Heidi, Girl of the Alps) or Lupin III, for instance?

T: I was the editor for Heidi during the whole series. As for Lupin, I managed the production committee in which Miyazaki was working.

I: I see. I'd also like to know why you suddenly began to produce full length films.

T: Simply because I couldn't achieve any personal satisfaction with short length films. Besides, today, to produce a beautiful anime for TV is impossible, since the budget for one TV episode hasn't increased for the last ten years, in spite of the increase in price of production costs.

I: How much is the budget of an anime in Japan?

T: It depends a lot; between ¥100 and 800 million.

I: I seize this opportunity to ask you: to whom are your movies aimed?

T: To everyone, in general. I wish, nonetheless, to make clear that Omohide Poro Poro isn't suitable, of course, to the youngest; let's say you could watch it above 10 years.

I: Are your movies extracted from novels?

T: In general, I choose to produce adaptations of literary works. I often used to work on foreign works, already at the time when I was producing series. Hotaru no Haka is the adaptation of an autobiographical Japanese novel written by Nosaka AKUYUKI; but the book became famous only after the movie was out. With regard to Omohide Poro Poro, only some parts of the storyline come from a novel -- which was already more than ten years old.

I: Don't you think that Hotaru no Haka is a little sad for a child? I have not met yet someone who was not reduced to tears after having watching it.

T: I think that today we can hardly watch a natural death. For instance, people generally die in a hospital nowadays. I'd call it a scientific death. All I wished to find, beyond sadness, it is a straighter way to show things.

I: And, what about grown-ups? For a European person, it seems impossible to see grown-ups watching anime. The cultural barrier which separate each one from the other seems quite incommensurable. Could it be because they grew up, watching anime?

T: It is quite likely. In Japan, grown-ups very much like anime, especially since Kaze no Tani no Nausicaa (Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind), and they often take their children to watch them on week-ends, thus allowing the two generations to bring themselves together through entertainment. The average public is between 15 and 20, but, as I said, there are still more grown-ups since 1984.

I: Yes, I understand well the part that played the first big Miyazaki('s work) for every public. Of all Miyazaki's works, which one do the young Japanese like the most?

T: I think I can state positively that it is Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro), a movie every child in Japan really loves.

I: So do I. But I think I prefer the famous Tenku no Shiro Laputa (Castle in the Sky Laputa). What were your expectations in producing this movie? And where does its name come from?

T: The name of the island comes from Gulliver's Travels, the famous Swift work. Laputa was an island which was floating in the air and wasn't receiving sunshine because it was too evil -- which explains the negative connotation of its name which is derived from the word "bitch" ("puta" in Spanish, and "pute" in French). But the storyline was modified considerably and now has nothing to do with the original Laputa. Miyazaki and I worked to make a real adventure movie. Yet, nowadays, there is no uneducated country, because they all know the world's secrets. We decided not to do like Spielberg, i.e. to locate the world's secret beyond the earth, in the universe. We wanted to make a movie whose action takes place on earth, because it is our earth.

I: I also greatly admire Joe Hisaishi's music. His works are acknowledged outside the context of the movies for which he wrote the soundtracks.

T: Indeed, he wrote magnificent pieces of music. Come to that, I was the one who was in charge of putting them in the full length films. Before Nausicaa, he was composing "minimal music" -- a very different kind of music.

I: I never heard about it. What is it?

T: It is modern music, composed with a limited number of sounds which are repeated continually, from which comes the name. I'd have liked to have had such a talented composer for my movies.

I: But, at the beginning, all Studio Ghibli's movies were made profitable. It is very difficult to pay off such expensive anime in only one country.

T: It has only been since Majo no Takkyubin (Kiki's Delivery Service) that our productions have become profitable. None of the previous ones paid off, in spite of their great popularity -- unless we take into account the selling of derived products and rights, in which case, we can consider the balance positive.

I: With such a budget, you nonetheless have never used computer means to make the animation, have you?

T: No, everything was done manually.

I: In France, our national pride circulates the rumor that there could be a collaboration between Mr. Miyazaki and Jean Giraud (Moebius). What is the truth?

T: Surely, both men regard the other highly. However, at the present time, we have to exclude the hypothesis of any work in common for a simple reason: both have very strong personalities.

I: I understand; but on the other hand, were your works issued in foreign countries? For instance, we watched tapes from the American version (with 30 minutes cut) of Kaze no Tani no Nausicaa.

T: Yes, indeed. They showed me this version, as well. It is absolutely horrible! They did an enormous and aberrant censorship; they cut Hisaishi's pieces of music, without forgetting the changed dialogues. It was a great error of Studio Ghibli and we haven't given broadcast rights to foreign countries since; and we'll never again give such rights without an attentive examination of the condition beforehand.[3] For that matter, the international rights for Nausicaa given to the U.S.A. will be over in 2 or 3 years. All these movies are grounded strongly in Japanese culture and are not conceived with an eye towards exportation. Censoring them is worse than betraying them.[4] This festival constitutes the first public broadcasting in a foreign country and I have to admit that I am very surprised by the public's reaction. Anyway, we're still very afraid of how our products will be used in foreign countries.

I: Indeed, we know these problems. We try to obtain a better respect for Japanese anime, so as to maintain a level the nearest possible of the original work. Most certainly, this attempt is often hopeless, but we remain a dissenting voice.

T: [Here, Mr. Takahata begins to speak French] I... er... agree with what you're doing.

Then we had to part company: he had to rest to prepare himself for the hard events of the day after. But the next day, once again, as he promised, he talked to all the magazine's staff (that was there this time) and to myself (we ate breakfast together) to explain some of the reasons of his inspiration, fundamentally based on Japanese culture.

T: Here. This book contains the reproduction of a Twelth Century Japanese parchment. (He showed us a book containing the representation of a Japanese parchment which must be very long since each page represented a part of this parchment; thus, if they were torn out and placed side by side, we would have the entire linear parchment.) The original is made with two tubes around which are affixed the rolled parchment. Thus, the two tubes would be rolled by hand simultaneously so as to unthread the scenes. Thus, we have the first Japanese animated scene of history. On the other hand, the scenario is explained in ideograms at peculiar passages.

    So the story took place: of an incendiary who is eventually found and punished by the Emperor. Stylistic effects are plentiful: movement in the reading direction or in the opposite one, the presence of the same character several times in the same scene to show his movement, the characterization of faces, all expressing different emotions (for these, the work was focused solely on manipulations of the effects of light and shade which was very elaborate)... It would be very difficult to explain everything, since we'd have to show you these documents to explain their plastic meaning... In a methodic way, thus revealing a pedagogical mind -- so much so that he took care to describe each scene and each detail which he talked with us about later -- he kept on turning the pages, helping us discover the document. His ostensible purpose was to make us understand that the style used nowadays in the anime industry did not date back to the discovery of Walt Disney, but longer ago. In this document, we recognized the strokes of the outlines which made the characters, cinematographic plans, and an idea of the (virtual) movements, thanks to only the reading direction.

T: The basis of such works have to be understood. They are mere scenes of everyday life, expressed in the slightest detail. This is an integral part of the Japanese culture, this is a very old translation. Moreover, please note the very expressive features of every face. You see, when I wanted to produce these full length films, no one thought that the subjects chosen could be done as an anime. They were wrong. The culture, the one which comes from our culture, explains for the most part all that we can find in anime nowadays. And, try to remember one thing, which counts the most: it is not the real, nor even the relationship with the real; it is only the line and the way of drawing.


Notes from the translator
1. According to Olivier Cao, Philippe LHOSTE is "a head person among French otakus. A french otaku personality, if you will. He wrote many articles in many anime French fanzines, and even one in a Canadian anime fanzine -- namely, Protoculture Addicts; it was an article about anime in France -- and founded an anime APA [Amateur Press Association club] in France."
2. Cedric Littardi, the interviewer, noted: "I acknowledge some time after that he reads French -- even if his conversation was a little limited -- and that he even translated some works on some French artists."
3. It seems like France has filled these conditions since we have the rights to broadcast (this will be done next year) both Porco Rosso and Totoro.
4. There is an Italian proverb that goes, "Translator, traitor" ("Traduttore, traditore," if my memory serves me). ;)

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