There's been a lot of speculation in the West as to why Isao Takahata hasn't directed a feature film since My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999, and until a year or so ago, he barely said anything about it. But Takahata is working hard on a number of projects, and is buried endlessly in the "research" phase, which, as we all know, could take forever. The amount of depth he puts into his films is astonishing. There's a reason for that three-year gap between Grave of the Fireflies and Omohide Poro Poro.
Takahata has insisted that he wanted to step down from directing for a while after Yamadas was completed. Whether or not there was pressure from within the studio, I cannot say, but he firmly denies it. It would seem to be odd, and more than a little cruel, for Suzuki and Miyazaki to take away his director's chair simply because Yamadas wasn't a hit. When we look at their careers, the films and tv shows that failed to become instant hits looks like a roster of their greatest hits - Horus, Lupin III, Cagliostro, and the first three Ghibli films, Laputa, Fireflies, and Totoro. So, as far as I can muster, that just wasn't the case.
I'm completely beside myself that the Japanese public, which grew up on Takahata productions like Heidi (which is absolutely fantastic, the subtitles be damned) and Marco and Anne, would ignore Yamada-kun. For all the brilliant qualities of that film, for all its subtle nuances of human nature and endless laugh-out-loud jokes, the movie went over like a lead balloon. Japanese moviegoers preferred to spend their hard-earned money on...Pokemon? Jar-Jar Binks? Didn't they get the word from America? What were they thinking? Were psychedelic mushrooms still legal in 1999?
I also wonder how much more difficult it is for Takahata to make a film, now that all of his best collaborators are gone? Yoshifumi Kondo was his best sidekick (character designer on Anne, character designer/animation director for Fireflies, Poro Poro, and Pom Poko), but he's gone. Otsuka - retired to teaching. Kotabe, Okuyama - kart-racing around the Mushroom Kingdom. It's harder for a writer/director who doesn't draw; he needs artists of a similar stripe. So while my morning prayers always include the petition, "please let Talahata make one more movie*," I'm aware that this is more difficult than it sounds.
Still. Now that I have all of his directoral works, I'm only left wanting for more. Oh, that and some English subtitles for Heidi and Jarinko Chie. Those will be in my evening prayers.
(*Yes, I am aware that the minute after my plea to the supreme being is granted, the very next question out of my mouth would be, "Oh, by the way, could you let him make one more after that?"