Friday, September 29, 2017

Video Backlog: “Isao Takahata and His Tale of the Princess Kaguya”

Publisher: StudioCanal (UK)
Format: Region 2 DVD, PAL, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles
Length: 86 minutes
Production Date: 2013
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

About a month or so ago, Madman Entertainment rereleased the entire back catalogue of Studio Ghibli films to cinemas. There was a lot of interesting stuff, all of which I had on DVD or blu-ray and I really couldn’t be arsed watching any of them again for $20 a pop in the cinema. I mean, essentially it’s just a digital projection of a blu-ray. Why would I bother? One title caught my eye however; “Isao Takahata and His Tale of the Princess Kaguya”, a documentary on his 2013 film, most likely his last. I looked around to see if it was available on home video. Luckily it had been released as a standalone DVD in the UK, sourced from the US release where it was only available as an extra to the film. This documentary serves as companion piece to Mami Sunada’s “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”, which was made at the same time and documented the making of Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises”.

Isao Takahata is essentially the other half of Studio Ghibli. Often ignored, even by fans of the studio, over the last 50 years he has directed some truly interesting works, the TV series “3000 Leagues in Search of Mother” and his brilliant theatrical debut “Horus: Prince of the Sun” being my two favourites in his filmography. He’s been no slouch at Ghibli either directing “Grave of the Fireflies”, “Only Yesterday”, “Pom Poko” and “My Neighbours the Yamadas”. Unfortunately many have just broke even or were box office bombs, most notably “Yamadas”. He’s almost the antithesis of Hayao Miyazaki in regards to his films. Takahata’s films are generally more down to earth and realistic, while Miyazaki’s are flights of fancy.

The film strangely begins mid production with an off camera interviewer asking an exhausted Takahata what his film is about. He responds that no director knows what their film is about and seems despondent. We then back track to 2011 where Takahata and his long suffering producer, Yoshiaki Nishimura, are at a table read for the film with voice actors Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Nobuko Miyamoto and Takeo Chii. Unusual for a Japanese animated film, the voice acting will be recorded first, then the animators will animate to the performances, much like western animation. However Takeo Chii is having trouble getting into character and does his lines numerous times before Takahata is satisfied. It must be noted that production on the film takes so long that Chii tragically dies nearly a year and half before the film is released to theatres.

In an interview with Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki, he confirms Miyazaki’s claim in “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” that due to the production of ‎“My Neighbours the Yamadas” in 1999, the studio was in utter chaos, mainly because that film wasn’t a traditional cel animated film and a large chunk of the staff didn’t have any work to do. A new studio, Ghibli 7 Studio, was created in order to create Takahata’s movie. Takahata explains he no longer wanted to cel based animation and “Yamadas”, done in a water colour style using computer and drawn animation, was in response to that. Later the film crew follow Yoshiaki Nishimura who tells the documentary makers he took almost seven years to convince Takahata to make another film. From his description it sounded like seven years of non-stop polite badgering.

But things are going quite badly on the production front. The animators are finding rather difficult to envision Takahata’s world for the film as it requires a light touch with sketchy, almost undefined lines. Takahata himself is extremely fastidious literally adjusting the colour setting on every single cut in the film, over 1,400 of them. We also learn that amusingly Takahata can’t draw. He gets his ideas through to people by writing and explaining them in detail. While both his film and Miyazaki’s are due for a simultaneous release in summer 2013, it becomes obvious to all that Takahata is not going to make it. In a late 2012 press conference, Toshio Suzuki announces the delay. Before the end of the year with not much progress made and more worryingly the storyboards remaining unfinished, Nishimura decides the production can no longer go on. He dismisses the staff over the Christmas and New Year’s period and practically forces Takahata and his storyboard artist to finish up. If he doesn’t, the animators cannot finish their work.

The third year of production begins and there is still a quarter of the film which hasn’t even been animated yet. Regardless Takahata begins to think about music and hires long time Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi to work on the score. Things go mostly smoothly until the climax of the film. With only a couple of months before the release date, Takahata decides to completely reanimate a flying sequence, causing just about everyone to tear their hair out, if they haven’t done so already.

This documentary was originally a two part special called “Isao Takahata and His Tale of The Princess Kaguya ~Ghibli 7 Studio, Legend of 933 Days~”, which aired on the pay satellite TV station WOWOW in late 2013. It was later released on home video by Walt Disney Japan, however in a reedited and expanded format of just over 200 minutes, which honestly seems like overkill. The two directors, Akira Miki and Hidekazu Satou, haven’t done much of note in their careers as far as I can tell. However for the most part it’s a reasonably well done documentary, though not up to the standard of Mami Sunada’s “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”.

While Takahata is conspicuous in his absence in that film, in this documentary one scene actually shows him going to Miyazaki’s studio where he asks him how production on “The Wind Rises” is going. Miyazaki then casually asks him for advice on a cut showing a record player. A second scene has himself, Miyazaki and Suzuki in Miyazaki’s office casually chatting. It’s hilarious to think there are more shots of Miyazaki in this documentary than there is of Takahata in “Kingdom”. I think Mami Sunada really downplayed Takahata’s presence in the production of “The Wind Rises”, and portrayed him as a problem for the studio. Watching this doco, it seems that perhaps that depiction of him was overblown. Later in the film as Miyazaki announces his retirement at a press conference, Takahata quips that directors shouldn’t announce their retirement. He seems truly perplexed why Miyazaki would do such a thing and even refused to attend the press conference, even though he was invited.

While I think the documentary does a pretty decent job of chronicling the ups and downs of the production of the film, there are some really frustrating parts to it. For example there are two sequences where director Akira Miki interviews Takahata while he is riding a bike and the camera is placed in strange angles, including in the bike’s basket. A third interview is conducted while walking in the rain with the camera almost held upward to the sky. I understand that this doco was probably done on the cheap, however I thought that these scenes could have been intercut with other footage to make it look more professional not amateurish. About mid-way through the second part of the documentary, things start to get a bit dull, which is a shame. The one thing which stands out loud and clear is Takahata is absolute perfectionist, but possibly at the detriment of his own films.

StudioCanal’s DVD is really bare bones. All the English subtitles and titles are matted onto the video; there’s no “soft subs” at all. I suspect this doco sourced from whatever materials GKIDS in the US released. It seems to be a clean copy (i.e. free of Japanese text and titles) with all the translation laid over top. They could have been clever here and edited it so it was one program rather than two. For some bizarre reason they have chosen not to and credits appear half way through the DVD as part one ends. The video itself has a number of glaring NTSC to PAL conversion issues, which you’d think would be non-existent in modern video production. The menu is pretty bare bones with only a "play feature" function and scene selection. There are no extras whatsoever.

Overall this is a pretty good documentary and a really nice companion piece to “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”. However it’s certainly not as well produced or as well made as that film. It's also not worthy of a theatrical release in my opinion (as Madman did). Regardless it’s an interesting look into the other director at Studio Ghibli whom many fans unfairly overlook. 6.5 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: Eight TV series, four OVAs and three movies. In addition I am also waiting for additional parts of four TV series and two movies to be released before viewing them.

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