There’s something so fascinating about Japanese folklore as opposed to any kind of European ones. Everything is based on communing with nature and the mysticism involved is simply a given. Instead of wizards or demigods instilling the story with magic, the magic in Japanese stories is just an everyday fact of life, and people expect the amazing to happen. It’s this kind of disconnect between Japan and the West that makes Studio Ghibli’s newest animated feature, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya so welcome. Directed by Isao Takahata, it introduces audiences to the oldest piece of narrative fiction in all of Japanese history, and it feels somehow ancient and brand new at the same time.
Despite being one of the founders of Studio Ghibli, Kaguya represents only the fifth film Takahata has directed for the company, following Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Only Yesterday (1991), Pom Poko (1994), and My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999). Unlike his co-founder and undisputed king of feature anime, Hayao Miyazaki, whose films often bridge the gap visually and narratively between Japan and the United States, Takahata’s films are very attuned to Japan and its history, although they clearly share the tipping into the magical as all Ghibli films do. Kaguya is drawn and animated like a series of watercolor paintings brought to life, like the immaculate scrolls of the Edo period in which the film takes place.
Based on the 10th Century story, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the film begins with a bamboo cutter who finds a glowing stalk and, after cutting into it, he sees a flower that opens to reveal a tiny human girl, dressed in regal clothes, whom he believes must be a princess. The cutter takes the girl home to his wife and as soon as she takes the doll-like girl into her hands, the princess turns into a normal-sized infant. They decide to raise her as their own and they and the neighboring children begin to notice how quickly the child is growing and learning, getting larger sometimes before their very eyes. The children in the forest where they live start calling her “Little Bamboo” because of how quickly she shoots up.
Before long, Little Bamboo has become a lovely little girl who makes friends with the eldest boy, Sutemaru, and loves living in the forest and being around nature. However, the bamboo cutter is not satisfied that such a special princess be a lowly peasant and soon finds gold and fine robes in other glowing bamboo shoots and over the course of several months, makes trips to the Capital to build a massive palace for her, something befitting her perceived statue. Naturally, when she arrives, she at first loves the size of the mansion and the clothes, but soon begins to resent the teachings of what a proper upper-class young lady is supposed to be, which is mainly silent, emotionless, and demure beyond reason. Once she comes of age, she’s visited regularly by high society men, all of whom want to take her as a wife, having never met her and judging her only as another treasure in their collection.
The first thing to be said for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is that it feels like a piece of folklore. The story is very episodic and has very definite sections to it. Early on, it feels like a kids movie, despite seeing the young princess suckling on her mother’s animated breast, and is very funny and charming, but the older the princess gets, so too does the tone of the film subtly change until it’s pretty much a straight drama and our heroine’s victories and defeats are intellectual rather than physical. There is still humor to be sure, but it’s much more subdued and it becomes much more melancholic.
The animation, as I said, is atypical but welcome. There’s a looseness to it that is in sharp contrast to post of Ghibli’s output which is usually so detailed and the lines are so thick and well defined as to engulf the screen. Here, some scenes take place entirely on a white background or with only the bare minimum of scenery, while the characters have sketch lines on them at all times and the color bleeds over slightly outside of their parameters, again hearkening back to watercolor paintings and scrolls. It also lends the film a dreamlike quality, since the whole premise is that a little magical princess appears in bamboo. There is a beautiful sequence of Kaguya flying through the air as she thinks about how her life could have been, but it may have just been a dream.
At 137 minutes, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is the longest Studio Ghibli film, and at times you feel it. Because the characters are mostly caricatures fulfilling a piece of narrative, it can be slightly disengaged at times, however the family structure and character designs are all in place to keep people, including children, interested for the duration. Takahata’s return to direction after 14 years is on par with a lot of other Ghibli films but the animation style tips it over into the upper echelon.