The recently-concluded Qingming Festival was chilly in China, with snow and rain hitting large parts of the country. Yet it was even chillier for animation fans as one of their most beloved Japanese animators, Isao Takahata, passed away that day.
Passing at the age of 82 on April 5, the animated film director was known for a string of critically praised works, such as Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the latter of which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. Co-founder of the celebrated animation company Studio Ghibli alongside famed animator Hayao Miyaza, Takahata is widely considered to be one of the greatest animators in Japan.
Takahata had a long and close relationship with China. One several occasions, he publicly acknowledged that he had been influenced by Chinese ink-painting and had even adopted certain elements of this in his work such as liubai, or leaving white, a Chinese painting technique that makes extensive use of negative space. Takahata also had a profound influence on China's animation industry in addition to having a large fan base in China. With the week anniversary of his death on Wednesday, or touqi as it is called in Chinese, Chinese fans and professionals paid tribute to the animator on social media.
Though his name has long been overshadowed by Hayao Miyaza, Takahata's works have had a far-reaching impact in China, earning the hearts of audiences with their distinctive realist narrative. Many young Chinese, especially those in their 30s, have fond memories of watching his films.
"I still remember the first time I saw My Neighbors the Yamadas when I was a student at university. It immediately drew me in and I found it very touching," Dong Jin, a lecturer in her early 30s at the Fine Arts School of Sichuan Normal University, told the Global Times.
The animated comedy film follows the daily lives of the Yamada family, a typical Japanese family. Takahata's detailed and realistic narration of ordinary people's daily lives captured the beauty and warmth of family love using a relaxed painterly style.
"I never thought that animation could present such sophisticated life philosophy in such an easy and relaxing way. I was moved and learn more about life each time I watch it," Dong said, going on to explain that the father's educational philosophy of learning for its own sake had a long-lasting influence on her academic life.
Apart from My Neighbors the Yamadas, Takahata's other works such as Grave of the Fireflies and The Raccoon War also number among Dong's favorites.
In many ways, Dong is just a reflection of the average Takahata fan. Chinese audiences often refer to his works as "healing material" as they tend to be very touching and comforting. On Sina Weibo, many netizens posted virtual candles to show both their admiration for the direction and the sadness they felt over his passing. Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday were among the top two most-mentioned films in many of these types of posts.
Appreciation for the director isn't limited to those over 30, as younger generations show equal interest in Takahata's works.
"I think that is the beauty of these master artists, their work can be passed down through the generations and never fade over time," said Dong, who surprisingly found that many of her students also consider Takahata's works to be valuable treasures.
Source of inspiration
Well-known in both his home country and internationally, Takahata was an inspiration for professionals in the Chinese animation industry.
"Pom Poko my favorite among all of Takahata's works. It is because of this film's influence that I insist on using anthropomorphized animals as main characters in my animated films and try to explore negative topics using positive role models," Dong Dake, the celebrated Chinese animator behind well-known works such as the Legend of a Rabbit animation series, told the Global Times.
Dong Dake indicated that choosing to tell the story from the animals' perspective and the theme of environment protection made Pom Poko - a film about cute raccoons who fight against humans occupying their territory in the wild - very thought-provoking.
Tian Xiaopeng, a Chinese animator whose representative works include breakout hit film Monkey King: Hero Is Back, echoed Dong Dake's view that Takahata was a huge inspirational figure.
"Takahata, Miyaza and Studio Ghibli's influence is surely undeniable. I often repeatedly watch their works when I am at the very early creative stage in order to inspire myself," Tian told the Global Times, adding that his favorite Takahata film is The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which the New York Times called "exquisitely drawn with both watercolor delicacy and a brisk sense of line" in a 2014 review.
This admiration was not a one-way street, as Takahata also showed a great deal of interest in the Chinese animation industry, stating that he had high hopes for his Chinese counterparts.
In an interview with Southern Weekly in 2014, Takahata said he was once amazed by Chinese animated works of the 1960s such as Baby Tadpoles Look for Their Mother but felt disappointed that such productions were rarely seen today as the industry focuses too much on commercial success rather than the creation of art.
While both Dong Dake and Tian acknowledge the commercialization of the industry, they are still optimistic about the future of Chinese animation, indicating that rapid progress is being made.