The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals (Isao Takahata, 1987)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals.

criterion logoA special project originally conceived as an animated feature, director Isao Takahata and producer Hayao Miyazaki were so struck by Yanagawa’s 290 miles of waterways that they created The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals, a tribute to this Venice of the East and Studio Ghibli’s sole live-action feature film.  Mixing documentary forms, Takahata traces the history of the canals from a 16th century irrigation and drainage system to a polluted eyesore in the 1970s to a reclaimed tourist attraction and cultural centerpiece to the local community.  The result is an extraordinary portrait in keeping with the themes of Miyazaki’s famed Studio Ghibli and its animated features, exploring the uneasy coexistence between man and the natural environment against the backdrop of ongoing modernization.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored 2K digital film transfer supervised by director Isao Takahata, with uncompressed stereo soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Interview with Takahata by Norio Akasaka
  • “Grass: Cultivating a Sense of Community,” a 22-minute uncut final chapter
  • Storyboards
  • Trailer
  • PLUS:  A booklet featuring a new essay by film scholars Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc

It doesn’t take long for discussions of worthy films deserving the Criterion treatment to approach the works of famed animator Hayao Miyazaki and his celebrated Studio Ghibli.  Most often cited is Isao Takahata’s heart-breaking and soul-crushing Grave of the Fireflies (1988), but with that film already on DVD and Blu-ray and most other Ghibli animated features being distributed by Disney for home viewing, the Collection would need to be a little more creative in finding representation for one of the world’s great film studios.  With that in mind, we suggest an unconventional choice – a nearly 3-hour long documentary on the decline and reclamation of the 290 miles of waterways that crisscross Yanagawa, Studio Ghibli’s only live-action feature, Takahata’s work immediately preceding Grave of the Fireflies, and a film almost entirely unknown outside of Japan.

The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals was originally conceived as a typical animated project for Studio Ghibli.  Flush with the success of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1984), a visit to Yanagawa by Miyazaki left the master animator considering the locale as a tranquil setting for a new feature.  At Miyazaki’s suggestion, Takahata visited the city and became so entranced with the canals and the efforts of the local community to maintain them that the animated feature was dropped and a live-action documentary proceeded, personally financed by Miyazaki (who became the executive producer) and taking years to film and complete.  The result is a film mixing various documentary formats – talking heads, observational-styled location shooting, educational film explication (often through complimentary animated sequences prepared by Miyazaki himself – look out for that kappa cameo!).  The film reviews the history of the canals’ construction and use as an irrigation system and castle moat, touches upon the poetry of Meiji era writer Kitahara Hakushu (Yanagawa’s most famous public figure), maps the life-cycle of the canals as facilitated by Yanagawa’s citizens who clean and weed the waterways during moat-drying parties, and observes the various festivals and floating parades that celebrate the city and its community.  At the film’s heart is the story of the canals’ near demise and its rebirth thanks to the heroic efforts of Tsutae Hiromatsu, the head of the water supply division for the city.  As a result of the post-war economic boom in Japan, practices in maintaining the canals stopped and the waterways became heavily polluted with garbage and waste water, resulting in unsightly and clogged canals, a terrible stench, and pest problems.  Hiromatsu was assigned to study the blocking and removal of the canals, as many Japanese cities did at the time (to their eventual detriment), but returned with a report that instead recommended investing in plans to save the canals with citizen involvement as an essential component.  Amazingly, city officials were convinced by Hiromatsu that the project could succeed and public engagement was fostered and maintained, reclaiming the canals through traditional practices and turning Yanagawa into an eco-tourism destination.

Despite being an independently financed, live-action documentary, The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals easily fits within the catalogue of Studio Ghibli works, containing many of the themes and conventions present in its animated cousins.  Granted, the obligatory Miyazaki flying sequence is absent from the documentary, but The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals contemplates the uneasy relationships between technological progress and preserving the natural world and between nostalgia for cultural traditions and the realities of modern life.  In typically Ghibli-esque fashion, success is fashioned out of compromise, with differing entities and generations, public and private spheres, stepping forward to make contributions and accept their own modest sacrifices.  Like many of the studio’s films, The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals is about forging a community, merging them, and preserving them.  While highly personal, it exhibits the same careful, gentle tone characteristic to all Ghibli works.

Ponyo ArtworkAn unheralded, epic masterpiece in its own right, at once startlingly different from canonical Takahata/Miyazaki features and yet entirely consistent in tone and spirit, The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals would be a real discovery for many Studio Ghibli fans in the West and would provide a rare and unconventional entry point for the Criterion Collection into one of the great film and animation houses in Japan.  In fact, with no circulation outside of Japan, releasing The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals is precisely the kind of task that the Collection has made itself responsible over – promoting world cinema, celebrating great filmmakers, highlighting under-appreciated works.  With regard to cover art, could any Studio Ghibli product not feature Miyazaki’s house-style?  Hopefully there are some production sketches that could be drawn upon for Criterion packaging, much like the concept art provided above, prepared for Miyazaki’s 2008 animated feature Ponyo.

Credits:  Our screening of The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals came compliments of the Ghibli Blog‘s Download page.  Those unable to access the documentary and looking for immediate information on Yanagawa’s canals should check out Professor Yoshiyuki Osakaya’s PowerPoint presentation on the reclamation process, “Waterfront Conservation and Eco-tourism in Yanagawa City.”  The cover summary is generally derived from the synopsis taken from the International Rome Film Festival and the interview and unused final chapter (apologies for my translation of the Japanese title) appear as special features on the Japanese DVD.  Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc were selected as essay contributors given their excellent book Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, which contains one of the few English language discussions of The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals.

5 thoughts on “The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals (Isao Takahata, 1987)

  1. Rachel B October 5, 2015 / 1:52 am

    How do I watch “The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals?” I cannot find it anywhere! I found your article very interesting and informative. Thank you! I am a die hard Miyazaki fan and have almost every single title he’s ever worked on.

    • spinenumbered October 7, 2015 / 1:43 pm

      Thanks Rachel! I downloaded my copy from the Ghibli Blog, but it looks like their download page no longer appears on the site. I’m not sure when this change was made, and unfortunately I’m not aware of any other options. Sorry! If you come up with a solution, definitely share it here. Cheers.

      • Rachel B October 7, 2015 / 1:51 pm

        Thanks! Will do!

  2. just another visitor June 11, 2016 / 6:21 am

    Thank you for this interesting and informative post (with the links!). I’ve been to Yanagawa, and find the town with its canals and lovely flowered paths unique. The history of the canals and the people’s determination to save and clean the once polluted canals makes it even more fascinating. I hope I can find the documentary somewhere, unfortunately all clips and trailers have been removed from the internet now.

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