TIFF Interview: 'The Tale of Princess Kaguya' Director Isao Takahata
by Alex Billington
September 25, 2014
"It was all very difficult…" It's not surprising that it is as wonderful to sit down and talk with the people from Studio Ghibli as it is to watch the wonderful movies they make. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to interview Hayao Miyazaki prior to his retirement during a trip over to the US to promote Ponyo. While up in Toronto at TIFF 2014 this year, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet up with and interview Isao Takahata, the director of the beautiful film The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which was released in Japan last year and arrives in US theaters this fall. He was wonderful to speak with, making my entire trip worth it.
As with Miyazaki, the interviewed was conducted with a translator, so it's shorter than usual because it takes extra time to have both questions and answers translated. Takahata-san is an iconic animator/filmmaker behind beloved classics like Grave of the Fireflies, Panda! Go, Panda!, Gauche the Cellist, Only Yesterday, Pom Poko and My Neighbors the Yamadas. He's featured prominently in the upcoming documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, about Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, also being released this year in the US. I just screened his latest film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, at TIFF and loved it - read my review.
Below is a photo of me with Takahata-san after the interview. A real honor and delight to meet him. Without any further delay, let's dive into the interview itself - conducted in-person in Toronto through a translator.
I have to ask: it's been so long since you've made a film. Why now and why this story at this point in your life? What brought it about at this time?
Takahata-san: When you ask why this story now, it didn't have to be now. I could have made it 30 years ago or I could not have made it at all. Over 50 years ago I [first] had the idea of what might make this story interesting in a certain way. I had that idea. But I did not have a strong desire to make that story myself, to create the film myself.
But this time, somehow the conditions fell into place. Studio Ghibli had become a large enough studio to give me a budget [to make this]. And so, various other conditions fell into place for me to make this film.
Did your original idea include this unique visual style or was it more of an idea of how to interpret the story for the big screen?
Takahata-san: It certainly was the story. In the original story, it's very hard to understand the motivations of the main female character [Princess Kaguya]. So that makes the story mysterious and interesting. But I thought if I could inject whywhy she had to return to the moon, then it would be able to be told as a [cinematic] story. But, of course that was not the style, because 50 years ago I wouldn't have thought of using this kind of drawing style to show the film.
At what point did that style come about? Was it presented as a greater challenge for Ghibli to bring that style to life?
Takahata-san: This film has not been made by the main staff of Studio Ghibli. It was made by other people. What Studio Ghibli was doing was making the next Hayao Miayazaki film [The Wind Rises].
Since this fairy tale story well-known in Japan [as 竹取物語 Taketori Monogatari], did you feel more of a pressure to create something that was unique, and something that was different than what everyone was already familiar with?
Takahata-san: So my aspiration, I didn't feel pressure, but I felt that what I wanted was for people who watch the film to say, "Oh, was this what was really behind the story of Princess Kaguya?"
In Japanese culture, has this story been more of an influence on society or more in reflection of the way society has evolved, especially with where it's at today?
Takahata-san: I haven't really regarded the story in either of those ways. But, for example, in the story, the five suitors, in the original story they are told by the Princess Kaguya to bring something back, each of them, something that only someone who had had education in Chinese Classics would know. So she was supposed to have known all this, right?
But in the film, what I did was have her say, "Well, you've praised me with that kind of metaphor or simile. So then bring back what you think my value is." So it's not that she had to have a Chinese scholarship or anything. So the meaning has changed then. It wasn't just to make it really troublesome to those suitors to cause a lot of trouble. It has more of a modern appeal to the modern audience, I think. "If you think of me in that way, then bring me those real things that you've compared me to." So she is rebelling against being so objectified by these suitors. And that's a very modern sensibility.
What were the biggest challenges animating this way and what did you discover was easier to finish that you thought might be harder when first approaching it in this style?
Takahata-san: It was all very difficult… I thought that what I wanted to do was to make sure that the lines that were drawn and the kind of "sketch-like" effect was the style that we presented. But, of course in order to do that you need very talented people who are very brilliant at drawing in such a way.
I was very, very fortunate enough to have [Studio Ghibli legends] Mr. Tanabe [Osamu Tanabe] for the basic animation and Mr. Oga [Kazuo Oga] for the background art. I couldn't have done it without them and without their support and I was very fortunate to have that.
But there were still difficulties in trying to make sure that that went throughout the whole production team and that they all worked in that manner. That was very difficult to do.
I'm a huge fan of [his 1988 film] Grave of the Fireflies, it's a film that a lot of people still talk about. Why do you think so many people talk about it? Why does it resonate so much and why do so many people want to discuss it after discovering it? Do you find that to be the case with all hand drawn animation?
Takahata-san: I'm not sure why that happens. But the kinds of films that I've wanted to make are not just for the immediate pleasure of the audience. So I'm very happy that I've been able to create some works where people discuss it afterwards. When I see people talking about the film in coffee shops or something after they've seen a film of mine, I'm very happy and pleased that they weren't just moved in the moment by it, but that they've been able to take from it something that relates to their own lives and be able to discuss it further and to have that [much] more of an impact. I hope that this film also has that impact.
Are there any films you've seen recently that you've loved and/or found to be beautiful that you want to tell other people to see, whether animation or live?
Takahata-san: Probably I had some… There must've been a film! [Pauses for a long time…] I can't think of a film right now. But it probably wasn't an animation film. [Laughs]
Arigatou gozaimasu to Isao Takahata, and Bond Strategy / Ghibli for arranging the interview.
Studio Ghibli's The Tale of Princess Kaguya, written & directed by Isao Takahata, will be released by GKids starting October 17th in select theaters. Read my review from TIFF 2014 and watch the official US trailer.