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Last February a special visit was made to the Anima 2006 in Brussels, Belgium. Of course this could have been to watch the beautiful animations of for example Youri Norstein, the Russian animation director who Hayao Miyazaki greatly admires. Or perhaps to see the short animated features which took part at the Palmares International Competition. However, this time the visit had a different reason. A better reason. The 25th edition of the Anima had a special guest this year: master animation director and co-founder of Studio Ghibli Isao Takahata. As guest of honour a retrospective of his movies took place, most of them never released in Belgium or even Europe, as well as a 2-hour conference by Takahata-san about Japanese animation. In addition, had the chance to meet the director in person himself and ask him about his works during a personal interview at the 5* Metropole Hotel.

One of the unique things about your movies is the fact that they are all completely different. Not only story wise, but most notably stylistically. You have once said that you originally planned Hotaru No Haka (Grave of the Fireflies) to look really different but had to go for a more regular look because of the time limit of the production. Can you tell me something about your original ideas for the film and how would it have looked like?

“Well, that is not completely true. I originally wanted to research it more thoroughly, but around that time it was to be released March next year so unfortunately there was little time. So yes, I did wanted to do more research to look for more ideas for the film, but style wise I wasn’t planning to make it look completely different. Even though I couldn’t explore my directions completely, I am still very glad with result and I thank Hayao Miyazaki for this! During the pre-production stage of the film he was the one who advised me to make it, because this would probably be my only chance and otherwise it would have never been made.”

(note: again Takahata shows his gratitude towards Miyazaki in relation to the making of Grave of the Fireflies, something he has done in other interviews as well).

Linking back to the first question, about your films all having different styles, is there a particular reason for this?

“Well, I do not fit in this logic of where I should change collaborators each time. I don’t know if this is normal in Japan, but animators do not let them be pushed into a corner of having only one clean animation style. They‘d rather have the capacity to adapt, like for example manga, which must have a graphic personality.”

Except for the uniqueness of your films being all completely different style wise, they also one particular similarity. You could say that you have a preoccupation with realism with a oeuvre of films that all flirt with documentary.

“I am unaware of my films being perceived like that in Europe, but there is indeed a documentary part in them. For My Neighbors the Yamadas, which was inspired by a manga, the heart is described in such a manner that one can see a documentary aspect there. I want to avoid inserting something completely unreal in the middle of a scene. This is a process which I refuse.”

Sometimes this preoccupation with realism leads to propose harder scenes or images…

“It is my intention to build a film with the aim of causing some particular emotion”, corrects Takahata. “I absolutely do not want to manipulate the reaction of the viewer. But the choice of using hard images is necessary: like it was necessary for Grave of the Fireflies to tell the story about how life was in a bombarded city.”

Could you say that Grave of the Fireflies has an anti-war message?

“I can understand people think it has, but I did not deliberately put an anti-war message in it.”

Some current manga seem to portray the opposite and justify Japans part in World War II in terms of not having had a choice. What do you think about that?

“I am not aware of this as I don’t read many manga, but if there would be such a trend in current Japanese manga I am fiercely against this. Also I completely disagree with that Japanese people that claim that Japan had no other option than to go to war. It was no reaction to something that happened, but Japan’s own choice to attack the other Asian countries and also the war with America was a result of this wrong choice.”

Takahata at the Anima 2006, copyright A. Colmant

With the exception of the short feature you made for Fuyu no hi (Winter days) we haven't heared a lot from you after My Neighbors the Yamadas was released. A contact from the French Buta-Connection informed me about your visit in France of yesterday where you told them something about three future animation projects. What have you been doing lately and could you tell something about this possible next Takahata-features?

“This is true, I have been working on several projects. The first project is a traditional epic story about the large war between clan lords during the 12th century. I have also been busy with a project about the Ainu, a ethnic minority who live in the northern part of Japan (Hokkaido) from who it is said the Japanese people originated from. They have their own culture and left an oral literature. They also have remarkable lyric poetry and I would very much like to adapt one of these poetries. Then the final project I’ve been working on. Perhaps you know that Gauche the Cellist is an adaptation of one of the works by Kenji Miyazawa. Another project I’ve been working on is another adaptation on one of his works. I wrote many texts and I would very much like to adapt one of these projects, but they’re all still in their research stage. Unfortunately, they don’t advance much and I cannot tell you when they will be finished or even if they will actually be made.”

Pompoko is your only film which is not an adaptation of a novel or a manga. Why?

“I really do not regard it as a personal work. Anyway, not more than my other works. However, I had often wondered about the tanuki. They are part of the Japanese ecosystem, but one does not know them anymore in their true biological surroundings. Only the folklore remained. According to traditional Japanese tales tanuki are able to transform into humans. These stories stimulated my imagination. In Japan, a lot of tanuki get killed by cars when passing roads. It was difficult to explain that when they are able to take human form. The easy way was to justify it by a loss of their ability and their knowledge. Like us, they forgot their instincts. Another reason is that the tanuki always lived close to men near the forests, which made it possible for me to approach another topic as well: the relationship between men, nature and his environment. By destroying the forests, the tanuki disappeared, just like what happened with the extension of Tokyo.”

Some people link Pompoko with eco terrorism. What do you think about that?

Takahata-san laughs. “I did not know about this point of view. They consider the tanuki to be terrorists? But they are the victims. The film depicts a drama; it is the end of a world, the end of the tanuki world. I wanted the viewer to look from the point of view of the animals and try to make us perceive how our world appears to us seen from the outside. However, the terrorist label does not disturb me. Today, terrorists are public enemy number 1. But historically, terrorism was sometimes a mean of asking attention of the established society. This state of mind existed until in the seventies. Terrorism sometimes had the capacity to make the world or people reflect on their condition.”

Your works are often anchored in realism. When something imaginary does happen, it is never related to any of the often used anime subjects like fantasy or science-fiction. Why is this?

“I cannot speak for other countries, but in Japan there is indeed a domination of what I consider as "fanatasy", in cinema or in manga. For these types of art, there are of course often interesting works. However, it’s because of its monopoly that the young people tend to consume only these types of works and only live in these chimerical universes. All of the video games or the films water the young spectators of these universes. Another element which strikes me is that aesthetically speaking, these works tend towards ultra-realism, either using real photos which are manipulated using a computer or using 3D often blurring the border between the real world and the "fantasy" world. The problem with this is that when the young people find themselves in reality, they find it dull and depressing and only dream of living in a factitious universe. I think this is a shame and consider it as dangerous. This is why I do not appreciate "fantasy" in general.”

What is your opinion regarding people who say your work (Grave of the Fireflies and Pompoko) appear to have one constant: humans are not having it’s best day. They claim your films to be a little pessimistic.

“Indeed, I have been told sometimes that my films tend to be pessimistic, but I do not agree / understand how one can come to this conclusion, even if this manner of perceiving them interests me.” Takahata-san looks at his characters and their story differently: “The end of Pompoko is completely clear. In the end it’s not all good, but if one chooses to live, it is necessary to have hope. It is the only way of living. That is my message, and I hope that my films contribute to that message!”