Movie Review – The Tale of Princess Kaguya

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
Written by Isao Takahata & Riko Sakaguchi
Directed Isao Takahata

When people talk about Studio Ghibli, you will most often hear them talk about it in the context of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. That’s completely reasonable as the studio’s most prominent work started with Miyazaki before becoming a collaborative effort. However, he was only the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, with his partner being Isao Takahata. Takahata was the director behind films like Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, and My Neighbors the Yamadas. Takahata’s take on animation was quite different than Miyazaki, but both men worked to push the medium in ways it never had been, both artistically and thematically.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya occurs in medieval Japan when Sanuki, a bamboo cutter, discovers a miniature girl living inside a glowing bamboo shoot. He brings the girl home to his wife, and they watch in amazement as she grows quickly into a toddler. The girl is named Princess by her new family and nicknamed Little Bamboo by the local children. Sanuki returns to the forest and finds a bamboo shoot full of gold and another with silks. He becomes convinced that this is a sign from the gods that Princess must be given a noble life. By this time, she is a young woman who has grown to love her group of friends. Being an obedient daughter, Princess agrees to move to the city where Sanuki and his wife want to set her up as a noblewoman. A name-father grants her the name Princess Kaguya when she comes of age, and the suitors begin showing up.

The first thing that will stick out to the viewer is the radically different style of animation Takahata employs in this film. The film was based on a famous Japanese folktale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a story Takahata grew up reading. He began working on an adaptation as early as 1960 with Toei Animation. The delay was worth it because Takahata honed his craft for the next fifty years that helped him gain ample knowledge about the art & skill of animation.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a gorgeous watercolor-inspired film. Characters are not presented as realistic in any manner, but more like drawings in a children’s book or those painted by Japanese artisans during the period of the story. When Kaguya becomes emotional, the world transforms around her reflecting those emotions. When she becomes frustrated that she isn’t allowed to attend her own party for her naming, she explodes through the wall, rocketing across the city and the countryside before collapsing and slinking back home.

Takahata would explain the reasoning behind his impressionistic style in interviews at the time of the film’s release. He stated that “to have people believe in a fantasy world and characters that no one has seen in reality, it may be best to present the space, objects, and characters in a three-dimensional manner. “And that reasoning definitely plays out on screen. Often backgrounds are hyper-minimalistic, white paper with a few flourishes. When detail is needed, Takahata doesn’t hold back, but he vacillates based on what is appropriate for the moment and the characters.

I was incredibly moved by this picture, and so Takahata was right about balancing the style of animation with the emotional investment. Sanuki is a well-intentioned figure who ultimately does so well at what he sets out to do; it causes him to lose his adopted daughter. The film’s ending feels like the real endings of fairy tales and folk stories, which often taught a lesson through tragedy. The film’s themes center around the fragile nature of beauty and life, how we must cradle it gently to avoid losing it. However, we have to live with the knowledge that all beauty will fade, our lives will end. Sadly, this was Takahata’s final picture and serves as a perfect send-off for the filmmaker. 

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