Atypical Genius: The Films of Isao Takahata

Isao Takahata
Isao Takahata | © Studio Ghibli UK via Facebook
James Gates

Isao Takahata was the beating heart of Studio Ghibli. While his friend and co-founder Hayao Miyazaki may have been the more recognisable face at the legendary studio, it was the late director who was the more creatively daring of the two. He leaves behind an incredible body of work.

During his career at Studio Ghibli, Takahata directed only five films, each of them utterly unique. Stylistically, there was no such thing as a ‘typical’ Isao Takahata film, as he worked with a variety of animation styles. His movies were bold, fearless works that stuck to no single genre. Subject matters ranged from the horror of life in wartime Japan to a family of magical transforming raccoons. Beauty, impermanence and sorrow were recurring themes. Unlike Miyazaki, Takahata was fascinated by the nuances and fleeting moments of everyday life. What appeared mundane to others was, to him, fertile soil for his boundless creativity.

Born in Mie Prefecture and educated at the University of Tokyo, Takahata was already an experienced anime director by the time he co-founded Studio Ghibli along with Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki in 1986. One of Takahata’s best-known features up until then was the children’s anime Heidi: Girl Of The Alps (on which he collaborated with Miyazaki). But his first film for the then-fledgeling studio was the unforgettable Grave of the Fireflies.

A harrowing drama set in the spring of 1945, Grave of the Fireflies is about two children fighting for survival in the city of Kobe during the final stages of World War II in the Pacific. It examines the devastating impact of war on childhood innocence with an unflinching eye. The film was a watershed moment for Japanese animation, as it showed that the medium was capable of telling ‘grown-up’ stories that could connect and linger with audiences. Given its sombre subject matter, it’s no surprise that Grave of the Fireflies was not a huge box office success when it was released as a double bill alongside My Neighbour Totoro. It has since been recognised as a masterpiece.

Takahata would make his follow-up three years later with the sublime Only Yesterday. Less emotionally devastating than his debut but no-less expertly crafted, the movie follows a young woman reflecting on her childhood. At the time, it was unlike anything else seen in animation: a realistic drama made for adults, centred around a female protagonist. That didn’t stop it from becoming the highest-grossing film at Japan’s box office in 1991. It only received an official English-language dub in 2016, with voices supplied by British actors Dev Patel and Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley.

Takahata would indulge his fantastical side with his next feature, Pom Poko, which is inspired by popular myths in Japanese folklore. It tells the story of a dysfunctional family of transforming tanuki who must put aside their differences when their home is under threat from human builders. Charming and laugh-out-loud funny, it gave Takahata room to stretch his thematic legs, showing a more playful, humorous side to the director.

For his next feature in 1999, Takahata did yet another 180-degree creative turn. My Neighbours The Yamadas is a series of vignettes about life in the Yamada household. A classic of the slice-of-life genre, it follows a squabbling husband and wife, two children, a cantankerous grandmother and a po-faced dog. The film takes an honest-but-affectionate look at the moments that challenge, define and bring a family together. One distinguishing feature of the film is its visual aesthetic, which is a complete departure from Studio Ghibli’s house style and takes inspiration from Japanese comic strips.

Takahata’s next job as director was contributing a segment to Winter Days, a 2003 animated anthology based on the work of revered Japanese poet Bansho, the man credited with inventing the haiku. But the film that would become his farewell masterpiece would not materialise until 2013’s The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya. Adapted from the well-known Japanese folktale of a little girl with magical origins, the film was nominated for Best Animated feature at the 87th Academy Awards. It is one of Studio Ghibli’s crowning artistic achievements, owing to its exquisite watercolour art style, a masterful combination of fantastical and dramatic storytelling, and an ending that doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house.

News of Takahata’s death was sudden and unexpected. While he is mourned by fans and movie lovers alike, his movies are a lasting testament to a low-profile genius, whose incredible talent helped define one of the greatest animation studios of all time. His atypical, peerless approach to moviemaking will continue to inspire creators for a long time to come.

culture trip left arrow
 culture trip brand logo

Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip

meet our Local Insider


women sitting on iceberg


2 years.


It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.


I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!

culture trip logo letter c
group posing for picture on iceberg
group posing for picture on iceberg

Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.

map of volcanic iceland trip destination points
culture trip brand logo
culture trip right arrow
landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.