For Reel


Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
February 22, 2016, 2:09 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Isao Takahata
5 Stars
Grave of the FirefliesIt’s shocking to learn that Grave of the Fireflies made its debut as a double feature with Studio Ghibli’s other masterpiece about siblings, My Neighbor Totoro. Tim Brayton at Antagony & Ecstasy rightly points out a few of the similarities in the films’ non-condescending approach regarding the point-of-view of characters who float in the uneasy territory between childhood and adulthood, but the essences of the stories are nonetheless very different. Grave of the Fireflies, like My Neighbor Totoro, does have sublime moments of caring between people–it is a brutal film, but one very much linked to a theme of empathy–but it is largely about the ugliness of war. Furthermore, director Isao Takahata’s neorealistic approach brings animation to an entirely new light, pushing the medium even further than Totoro does. Animation allows more room for the viewer’s imagination than live action ever could, and yet Takahata assaults the audience with images as grimly realistic as the corpse of a mother covered with maggots. Meanwhile, accompanying images of brutality are the shots of the titular fireflies, which illuminate the faces of the siblings as the film touchingly remarks on their love for one another. Roger Ebert was taken with the choice of animation for this material, arguing that, “animation produces emotional effects not by reproducing reality, but by heightening and simplifying it, so that many of the sequences are about ideas, not experiences.” Takahata’s mastery of the form (which was also on display in his followup masterpiece Only Yesterday) involves his ability to convey the “feeling” of a scene through simple framings or even plays with the color palette. The opening framing device could have been an overly-sentimental misjudgment, but it is approached with a delicacy that doesn’t undermine the horrors that the characters go through, but rather suggests a warmth in their eternal bond. Takahata achieves this through the use of objects (a spilled container that prompts an appearance) and lighting, with the symbolic fireflies serving as a haunting echo of the fallen bombs. This is one of the rare war films that makes its statement by simply being content to mourn, not by sermonizing what could have been done differently.

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The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
February 28, 2015, 9:55 pm
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Director: Isao Takahata
5 Stars
The Tale of the Princess KaguyaWhile Hayao Miyazaki’s artistic vision is defined by his brilliance in dealing with the fantastical and his ecstatic celebration of nature, colleague Isao Takahata grounds his stories in a reality that confronts themes of maturation, sorrow, and loss. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, a beautifully expressionistic fairytale rendered with extraordinary watercolor images, ranks alongside his very best. In moments, the pastel frames–which often melt away before reaching the sides of the image–are elegant and calm, but the brilliance of the visual style is apparent when the very lines that comprise the characters take up a ferocious, turbulent quality in the most emotionally distressing moments. For an aesthetic that is characterized by its simplicity, it is exploited for an incredibly dynamic range of feeling. Besides the brilliance of the images, it’s the ending, in which an ecstatic celebration becomes a symbol of repression, that makes The Tale of the Princess Kaguya truly soar. Although the Princess is confronted with the possibility of a lifetime of bliss, it is clear that in her heart she chooses the messiness of home–it’s the heartbreak, the sorrow, and the dissatisfaction that make life’s joys so transcendental. To rob one’s life of its complexities is to steal one’s spirit.



Pom Poko (1994)
August 8, 2012, 11:33 pm
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Director: Isao Takahata

Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko is rooted deep within Japanese folklore, portraying lazy, fun-loving raccoon dogs (known as tanuki) with shape-shifting abilities. In the film, they are uprooted out of their natural leisureliness and are forced to defend their forest from mankind’s devastation. When several of the tanuki kill human construction workers in the beginning of the picture, it becomes clear that Takahata is not taking his themes lightly – appropriately, he stresses the tremendous urgency of the increasing problem of deforestation (a theme which also serves to explore how Japan is losing its ancient, more wholesome roots in the industrial age). Regardless of the picture’s achievements, audiences outside of Japan will likely have one take away from it – the prominent testicles of the raccoons. While the English dub refers to them as “pouches”, they are quite unmistakably genitalia, which, in the film’s most bizarre set piece, are used as weapons of assault in a surprise attack. Over-sized testicles are one of the defining features of the tanuki in Japanese folklore, one of many such cultural references that make the picture slightly less accessible than any other Ghibli effort. Regardless, many of its pleasures remain universal – the early narrated moments are frequently hilarious, including some particularly inspired gags in which the raccoons try to assimilate into human culture, and the environmental message is delivered with a brutal grittiness that ups the ante over Miyazaki’s comparatively innocent nature fables.



Only Yesterday (1991)
July 16, 2012, 9:46 pm
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Director: Isao Takahata

Studio Ghibli’s most mature film is an incomparable masterpiece. Only Yesterday defies one’s expectations of even the most progressive of animated films – it is a quietly observed recount of aging and femininity, possessing none of the sense of scale or amusement that would commonly define even Ghibli’s most restrained efforts (Whisper of the Heart being its closest relative). Set in 1982 and 1966, Grave of the Fireflies director Isao Takahata jumps between the 27-year-old Taeko, an office worker who is spending her summer on a farm in Yamagata, and her 11-year-old self, just hitting puberty and learning to make due with life’s disappointments. Whereas the sequences in the present are detailed with a hyperrealist aesthetic (going as far as animating muscle movements on the character’s faces, which is uncommon in traditional Japanese animation), the memories are suitably hazy, using expressionistic pastel watercolors to mimic the sense of remembrance. In an early sequence, Takahata recalls James Joyces’ great short story “Araby” – Taeko and her family have their first highly-anticipated bites of a pineapple, only to discover that the taste isn’t quite suited for them. Everyone but Taeko puts the fruit down, who stubbornly continues to eat in displeasure, unwilling to accept that her romantic fantasy of its sweetness has been crushed. It’s both a humorous episode and a sharply metaphoric take on adolescence, attuned to the rhythms and lessons of life with a fine understatement.