Isao Takahata, a Japanese filmmaker who co-founded the animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli and was known for his inventive storytelling and richly drawn movies, most notably “Grave of the Fireflies” and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” died April 5 at a hospital in Tokyo. He was 82.
The cause was lung cancer, according to a statement by Studio Ghibli, which he and director Hayao Miyazaki founded in 1985 with producer Toshio Suzuki.
Sometimes described as the Disney of Japan — indeed, a Walt Disney World-like Studio Ghibli theme park is scheduled to open in Nagoya in 2020 — Studio Ghibli is widely recognized as one of the most profitable and inventive animation studios in the world, known for producing richly drawn anime movies with young female protagonists, talking animals and Japanese spirits, and story lines that appeal to both children and adults.
Named after the Ghibli, an Italian war plane and hot desert wind of the same name, the studio swept across Japan with an unusual 1988 double feature that paired Mr. Takahata’s wartime drama “Grave of the Fireflies,” about a pair of siblings whose home town is bombed during World War II, with Miyazaki’s “My Neighbor Totoro,” about two sisters who befriend a friendly forest spirit and ride aboard a bus-shaped cat.
“‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation,” wrote movie critic Roger Ebert, who included both films on his Great Movies list. “Yes, it’s a cartoon, and the kids have eyes like saucers, but it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made.”
Opening with the death of its protagonist and told in flashbacks, with the film’s main characters sometimes appearing as ghosts, “Grave of the Fireflies” was based on a popular short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, but also inspired by Mr. Takahata’s upbringing in Okayama. Mr. Takahata was 9 when the city was leveled by U.S. bombs in 1945. He later said he ran away from his home with a younger sister amid the attack, barefoot and clad in pajamas, and was nearly killed while his family hunkered down in an air-raid shelter in their garden.
Mr. Takahata went on to release a handful of critically acclaimed movies that addressed themes of family life, memory and conservation: the poignant “Only Yesterday” (1991), centered on a young woman who reminisces about her childhood in the Japanese countryside; “Pom Poko” (1994), about shape-shifting tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs) who battle real estate developers in the Tokyo suburbs; and “My Neighbors the Yamadas” (1999), a collection of short, pastel-colored vignettes about an unassuming middle-class family.
Yet while Mr. Takahata received an Academy Award nomination for best animated film for his final movie, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (2013), his films never attained the worldwide popularity of his more prolific colleague Miyazaki, who won an Oscar for “Spirited Away” (2001).
The duo struck up a friendship at the Japanese studio Toei Animation, where they worked on labor union issues together before leaving to develop television series in the 1970s, but maintained a strained relationship that once led Miyazaki to describe his colleague as “a real slugabed sloth.” The director nicknamed Mr. Takahata “Paku-san” — Mr. Munch, akin to the video game character Pac-Man — for his habit of finishing his breakfast in the office, well after Miyazaki had settled in for a work day that could reportedly last as long as 20 hours.
Eventually, Mr. Takahata told the Japan Times in 2015, the directors stopped talking about their work with one another. “It wasn’t that I didn’t like what he was doing, I just couldn’t compete with him,” he said. “I was very conscious of making films that he would steer clear of, and I hear he was doing the same as far as I was concerned.”
Unlike Miyazaki, who maintained a singular focus on his films, Mr. Takahata’s interests extended to fine art, music and the French poetry of Jacques Prévert, some of which he translated into Japanese. He once broke from animation to make a nearly three-hour documentary on the extensive canal system of Yanagawa, and wrote a history of 12th-century illustrated Japanese scrolls.
Still, he immersed himself in the animation process of movies such as “Princess Kaguya,” which took eight years to complete and incorporated impressionistic watercolor and charcoal work. Based on a 10th-century Japanese folk story, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” about a girl who sprouts from a stalk of bamboo, the film was also a deeply personal meditation on the brevity of life, ending with a folk song that seemed to mark a credo of sorts for Mr. Takahata:
“Flower, bear fruit and die; be born, grow up and die. Still the wind blows, the rain falls, the waterwheel goes round. Lifetimes come and go in turn.”
The youngest of seven siblings, Mr. Takahata was born in the Japanese city of Ujiyamada, now known as Ise, on Oct. 29, 1935. Raised in Okayama, he studied French literature at the University of Tokyo and became interested in animation after seeing an early version of “The King and the Mockingbird,” a movie adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that featured dialogue by Prévert.
He joined Toei after graduating in 1959, and later collaborated with Miyazaki on the television series “Lupin the Third Part I” and “Heidi, Girl of the Alps,” based on a book by Swiss author Johanna Spyri. He also directed an episode of the Japanese television series “Anne of Green Gables,” based on the Lucy Maud Montgomery novel of the same name, and in 2010 directed the animated movie “Anne of Green Gables: Road to Green Gables” (2010).
A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
In recent years, Mr. Takahata and his studio resisted altering their methods to account for the advance of digital animation techniques.
“It is about the essence that’s behind the drawing,” he told the Associated Press in 2015. “We want to express reality without an overly realistic depiction, and that’s about appealing to the human imagination.”