The 1999 film My Neighbors the Yamadas was not a success the way a lot of Studio Ghibli movies were, which is a bit of a shame considering how visually expressive it was. But its writer and director, Isao Takahata, a co-founder of the studio, didn’t make another movie for almost 15 years. Or, to be more accurate, he didn’t release a new movie for almost 15 years. The pace of Takahata’s filmmaking – which at Ghibli already takes a long, long time due to meticulous hand-drawn cels – was beyond glacial for his foray into the oldest of Japanese folklore, a story that mixed watercolor images, magical realism, and the director’s desire to explore the plight of girls and women throughout his country’s history. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was a long time coming, but worth the wait.
Takahata was already 64 when Yamadas came out, and like his Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, he’d toyed with retiring for awhile. Unlike Miyazaki, however, who would come back after each “retirement” with new and interesting films (Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away were each made after one of his false retirements), Takahata truly slowed down and didn’t create for a long while. Between features, he was one of the 35 anime directors who took a couple-minute portion of Kihachirō Kawamoto’s experimental 2003 film about folklore, Winter Days. Takahata’s is segment 28 and it runs just over a minute, and you can watch the entirety of his contribution below.
Weird, yes? That’s all the animation work he did between 1999 and the late ’00s when he began work on Kaguya.
Evidently, Takahata’s slow pace in making The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was a burden to the studio’s third key member, super-producer Toshio Suzuki, who is almost always the public face of the work Miyazaki and Takahata are doing and oversees all of the production. In the fabulous documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (on Netflix now), which follows Miyazaki at Ghibli’s Tokyo offices in the making of his final film, The Wind Rises – another very long process – Takahata is only spoken about as this enigmatic recluse, who is off making his own film in a different satellite studio office. Suzuki at several points laments Takahata’s seemingly unending process, which began before The Wind Rises, and wonders whether that film will ever be finished.
Miyazaki, who comes across in the movie like a stern wizard, pushing his animators to the lengths of their ability but always for the betterment of his masterwork, muses about his partner, saying at turns that Takahata was a nightmare to work with and that he was a genius, a good friend, and trusted confidant. Takahata gets to be almost a mythical figure in the documentary, spoken about for much of the runtime but only showing up in the flesh toward the end, accompanied by triumphant music. In truth, given he only made four Studio Ghibli films up to this point, his fame is by far lesser to Miyazaki. But is that fair? How does Kaguya measure up to The Wind Rises?
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. Naturally, she’s not willing to play this game and misses her friend.
The first thing to be said about the movie is that it feels like a piece of folklore. It’s very long, it’s episodic, it takes its time, but it never gets boring. The colors, muted in the way a watercolor painting is, seem to flow and reform like the bodies of water that play such a big part in the narrative. It looks like we’re watching a much older film, in a good way. If drawn and animated in the traditional Ghibli style, these stories would absolutely not have the same effect. The crispness of the usual style is gone and only this dreamlike amorphousness could convey the universal fairy tale of the story.
But Takahata’s real triumph with the story is using this very well-known piece of Japan’s history to make a comment about the state of women in the country. Kaguya is routine told what she’s doing and where she’s going by the various men in her life, becoming a princess when she absolutely would rather do anything else, and even taken back off into the stars with her true family despite wishing to stay. However, its her refusal to play along at a certain point that makes the story subversive. She wants to make her own decisions, she doesn’t want to marry any of the various buffoonish suitors that come her way, because most of them see her only as a prize. She doesn’t even want to become the demure princess her bamboo cutter father paid for her to be. There’s a thread of “Women Should Know Their Place” that Little Bamboo completely shirks, slyly conveying Takahata’s own point of view on the subject: be loud, women. Don’t let the patriarchy tell you what to do. Be like Kaguya.
The Wind Rises was nominated for Best Animated Film at the 2014 Oscars. It’s a bittersweet elegy about one man’s desire to make something beautiful while knowing it will be used for destruction – in this case the designer of the landmark Japanese fighter plane used in what was ultimately a losing effort in WWII. That movie feels like the end of something. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which was nominated in the same category the following year, on the other hand feels like a filmmaker just ramping up. After doing this retrospective on Takahata, a filmmaker I knew by far less than Miyazaki, I was delighted to realize that, while his movies are less awe-inspiring visually, they’re actually much deeper and full of pathos. You aren’t necessarily full of giddy delight after a Takahata film, but they always stay with you, burrowing into your brain and heart.
If Isao Takahata is indeed done with directing animation, and at 81 (five years older than Miyazaki) you can’t really blame him, it’ll leave the world of anime and filmmaking in general wanting more. Making only five films with the studio he helped create, they’re some of the most interesting, complex, and deeply moving films in the whole of Studio Ghibli’s canon. We should all be recognizing his contributions all the time.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series about Isao Takahata. If you’d like to go back and read any of the ones you missed, you can do so here (Takahata Textbook), and if you have suggestions about another anime filmmaker I ought to tackle, you can suggest them in the comments or to me directly on Twitter!
Images: Studio Ghibli/Toho/GKIDS
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!