Takahata, Kotabe, Okuyama in Winter Days

Here are two excellent segments from the 2003 animation anthology Winter Days. The first one is by Yoichi Kotabe and Reiko Okuyama, a stylized sequence that's somewhat different from what you'd expect from them - it's not at all like Heidi or Marco or Jarinko Chie. And yet, it's very familiar. I think this format allows them the freedom to stretch their wings, and not necessarily follow any of the standard conventions. They're allowed to experiment with the artform.

For those of you who are new to this site, Kotabe and Okuyama belong to that hallowed group of artists, animators, and filmmakers who grew out of Toei Doga in the 1960s. They're part of a loyal gang that includes Yasuo Otsuka, Yasuji Mori, Akemi Ota, Michiyo Yasuda, and of course, Miyazaki and Takahata. They've all stuck together, here and there, at Toei, A-Pro, Nippon Animation, and Telecom, and ending with Takahata and Miyazaki's founding of Ghibli in 1985. I've written many posts about this history, and will write many more, so be sure to use the search bar if you're curious.

Now, on to Takahata. This is especially significant because, as I've recounted earlier, his last feature film was My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999. There's a bit of dispute over what exactly happened during the production of that movie, which was over schedule and over budget. This is more common at Ghibli than most folks realize, but Yamadas was something of a daring break, not only with its visual style, but because it so directly contrasted with the studio's previous movie, Mononoke Hime.

Mononoke, of course, became monstrously successful, and catapulted Miyazaki into a statosphere of success that he resides today. He became the most successful filmmaker in Japan's history, by a country mile. It was also during this time that the Miyazaki name was finally spreading around the world, and hitting a critical mass.

So Takahata follows up a hugely successful movie with one that is quiet, reflective, and full of the warmth of human drama. It's a sly film, a comic Calvin and Hobbes cousin to his 1981 film Jarinko Chie. For moviegoers who crave the next epic adventure in the vein of Kurosawa, they got its opposite - an Ozu movie.

As a final, cruel insult, Yamada-kun was released to theatres at the same time as 1) the first Pokemon movie (just when that fad is red-hot), and 2) Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. A nation of 100 million people looked at the master storyteller they all grew up with, the one who gave them Horus and Heidi and Marco and Anne....and then ran off to go see Jar-Jar Binks.

The entire Japanese nation lost their minds. Yamada-kun was not a success at the box office, and never even recouped its money. For those who kept their senses and actually - gasp! - sat down and watched the movie, they loved it, and tried to bring their friends and family along. But these were few and far between.

Which brings us back to the present. There has been some dispute, particularly here in the West, since we have so little information to go on, as to what truly happened between Isao Takahata and Studio Ghibli. There was talk that he had been yanked from the director's chair, that he had been forced into retirement, or even made to leave the studio altogether.

It seems the truth is much less dire. Takahata had decided on his own accord to step back from filmmaking. He simply didn't want to continue with the old system of trading off pictures with Miyazaki. We have to remember that he was almost 65 when Yamada-kun was finished. Many of his peers had retired or moved on to other things. For Takahata, it was simply time to step back a bit and take a break from making movies.

The 2003 Winter Days project finally sees his return to the screen, once again at Studio Ghibli. This is an extremely short segment, roughly one minute, but we still see that same brilliance in wit and humor, and that same reverence for his history. Takahata's contribution to Winter Days is outstanding, and only heightens his absense even more.

Will there be another Takahata film? We certainly hope so. He openly boasts of having several film projects that he is researching; knowing him, this phase could take forever. It's always worth it. The crucial challenge now is time. At 70. he doesn't have many years left. But for the greatest living filmmaker, after Igmar Bergman, that can hardly be any hindrance. Miyazaki's next movie will be completed in 2008. Give us one more movie! Onegai! Onegaishimasu!

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