Takahata Isao (1935-2018), co-founder of Studio Ghibli, directed films of startling breadth in terms of both subject matter and style. The artistic and topical variation within Takahata films make the visual similarities of his final two films, My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), particularly striking.
My Neighbors the Yamadas was adapted from Ishii Hisaichi’s family comedy manga, Nono-chan, and its visual style emphasizes its manga roots. Shapes are outlined as though by pencil, and colors are splashed roughly within the sketched forms so that white space peeks around the splotches. The film’s opening sequence firmly establishes this manga-esque style through an invisible hand that draws the grandmother of the Yamada family onto the screen. The opening merges the source manga medium with animation in a way that recalls classic animations like Max Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell series (1918-1929).
Crucially, large swathes of the frame are drained of detail in this film. White space often surrounds the edge of the frame like a shell safeguarding the characters, and the soft pastels of their world are daubed on top of the screen rather than merging with it. The lines of their buildings will not extend to the edge of the frame, let alone off the screen. The overall effect is thus that the characters and their gentle world are protected from the real world in which we live.
Takahata’s next film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya repeats this technique of pencilled lines and floating swathes of color to portray a much wider range of feeling. Where The Yamadas opens by invoking the medium of its source material, Princess Kaguya invokes the setting and subject matter of its folk tale through the depiction of ancient Japanese art forms – calligraphy and decorative paper. The story itself follows a bamboo cutter raising a lost child who discovers that she is actually a princess from the Moon.
When Kaguya has a breakdown at the film’s midpoint, she is placed in the center of the frame surrounded by a sea of black. This is the only time in either film that black is used instead of white to encompass the action. Where the white frame provides a safe border separating a gentle world from the real world, the blackness around Kaguya at this point symbolizes the very real issues of sexism and sexual assault driving this mystic daughter of the moon’s despair. Kaguya’s subsequent flight from the city further stretches the pencil-like animation style. Colors fade from the setting, as the thin graphite lines of other scenes give way to thick, aggressive graphite scrawls that both limn shapes and provide the main source of color.
In the final act of the film, the comforting white swathes that protected the characters early in the film are transformed into the cold, white moonlight of a distant Buddha who forces Kaguya to return to space. The manga linkage of My Neighbors the Yamadas is absent from The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, even as graphite lines take center stage in depicting the protagonist’s deepest distress. Divorced from their manga associations, graphite linework and loose color washes add beauty, nuance, and even a religious aspect to an otherwise-straightforward folktale.