Takahata's Objective Style, Part VIII

Documentary Realism

Titles. Oh, yeah, I suppose that would help out a bit. I'll have to remember to add titles to all the chapters in my Takahata series, just so everyone will be better able to follow along.

That said, let's move along. We've already seen some examples of Isao Takahata's skill in creating complicated central characters in order to fulfill an objective storytelling style. There are piles of more examples, and I'm probably going to try to list as many as I can, going through the entire canon. For now, however, let's take a look at another significant element of the Takahata style - documentary realism.

I think Takahata's early influences were firmly set in Europe's post-war cinema - the Italian Neorealists and the French New Wave - as well as domestic heroes like Yasujiro Ozu and Japan's rich art history. Most of them are already on display on Horus in one form or another, with nods to Eisenstein and Jean Renoir just for kicks. But the final, most crucial piece of the puzzle appeared later.

Heidi, Girl of the Alps premiered on television in 1974, and it ushered the arrival of Takahata's focus on documentary details. One of the great strengths of Heidi is how thouroughly detailed the daily lives of people in the Swiss Alps are recreated. The series became a travelogue for Japanese viewers, an opportunity to see the outside world in greater detail.

Takahata and Miyazaki had been moving toward a more naturalistic style during the early '70s, after the original Lupin III series ended. There are the two Panda Kopanda movies, and the infamous Pipi Longstockings projects, and there are also a couple other projects that never saw the light of day.

There's a short video clip floating around the internet that's taken from an unaired pilot from this period. It's very short, about 20 seconds, but it's very similar to Heidi in many ways. There's a child character playing around with a farm animals in a rural atmosphere, and crowds of people working their jobs in tents.

Then, of course, there was that pilot for Yuki's Sun (was that the name of it? - check up on that.) that Miyazaki directed. It included a fair amount of human melodrama and a young girl in the center role. I posted about it some time ago when I found the video clip online.

Heidi seems to be the end-result of all this practicing and expanding. But it's the documentary details that are new. This is arguably the major focus of the entire series. Perhaps it's necessary in order to adapt a relatively short story like Johanna Spiri's Heidi into a 52-episode television series. Perhaps it's necessary for the sake of drama and building tension. Perhaps this is really just an opportunity to take the home country around the world, in the guise of a famous children's novel.

I'd say it's all three, and they intertwine and become interchangable. The brilliance of Heidi lies in how perfectly its three acts are structured, with episodic adventures building, steadily, slowly, towards the emotional climax. Act one - Heidi is dropped off with her grandfather in the mountains. She learns the ways of daily life, makes friends, grows. Climax - the aunt returns from Frankfurt to take the child away with her.

The pacing of the show is something that would likely turn away many American anime fans, especially those expecting action, action!, ACTION! The pilot episode, really, only involves Heidi's ride up the mountain to her grandfather. In the original story, it is a couple pages. In Takahata's hands, this becomes a welcome into the real world of the mountains.

We see the presence of farming and herding. We see the domestic details of the housewives in the village. And then we see Peter the goat-herd and his flock of goats. Careful observation is rewarded, as things are very often observed but never spoken out loud. In this world, we are the visitors, the tourists, and no one is going to point out everything for us and explain all the local customs. We're going to have to figure it out for ourselves.

It's also in Heidi's pilot episode that we see the emergence of one of my favorite Takahata traits of all, the transitional nature shots. It's one of the defining traits of Ozu's films; Roger Ebert coined the term "pillow shots."

DOH!! Outta time!! Let's continue this later. We'll pick right up! Later!


Anonymous said...

Daniel - These posts are just great. As a viewer who usually watches in a way where things just sort of wash over me, I find these types of explanations vital to gaining more enjoyment and information from my viewing experiences. Keep going!


Anonymous said...

Regarding the pilot episode of 1973, do you know where I can watch it?

I have watched another pilot made in 1967 by a different studio and that version looked completely different in design and much more Disney influenced.

More Ghibli Blog Posts To Discover