Isao Takahata is one of the directors out of Studio Ghibli that seems to be less discussed by fans in the west. Takahata is responsible for directing some of the most riveting and eerie films to come from the Japanese animation studio including Pom Poko and Grave of the Fireflies. His most recent directorial work is The Tale of Princess Kaguya, based on classic Japanese folklore, and it just might be one of the most expressive and chilling films from Studio Ghibli in years.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Director: Isao Takahata
Release Date: February 17, 2015 (DVD/Blu-Ray)
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is based on the classic Japanese folktale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, which tells of a bamboo cutter and wife who find a small girl inside a stalk of bamboo. The girl, who eventually comes to be named Princess Kaguya, grows very quickly into a beautiful young woman, which is only exacerbated by the bamboo cutter finding a trove of treasures in other stalks of bamboo in the forests. The bamboo cutter buys his family’s way into the lap of luxury and refines Kaguya from her quaint mountain life into to the extremely restrictive lifestyle of a feudal princess.
As Kaguya matures, word of her beauty spreads across the land and in due time, five overzealous suitors show up at the mansion doors. What follows is a haunting tale of Kaguya’s struggles for independence and freedom as well as an idea of what the definition true happiness is and what it brings to us. Is it wealth? Security? Beauty? Or something else altogether?
Princess Kaguya launches by wearing its folktale trappings on its sleeves. Most of the characters act as the everyman for all the roles people play in our lives and logic is thrown to the wind in favor of mysticism and bewilderment. However, once the stage for the story is set, emotion becomes the guiding force for most of the film. Each moment of the film is driven by these strong moments of expression, ranging from extremes of happiness to absolute depression. Even when it seems that the film is setting up an eclectic series of events, the narrative constantly takes a back seat to the emotional state of the film, Princess Kaguya, and the audience.
The story itself is actually quite simple to digest, but the true star of the film is the unique and striking animation on display. The film looks unlike any modern Ghibli film, trading in crisp and strong digital lines for very rough, very human brush strokes. The visuals evoke the imagery of traditional Japanese ink and watercolor paintings. You could take a still from any moment of the film and hang it up on a wall.
It’s not quite clear through why you’d want to freeze-frame the film, though, as the animation is simply stunning in motion. As lines are redrawn with every frame this motion implies a great sense of breath and life or quietness and weight when lines stand still. As motion increases and action climbs, the lines get more and more out of control, as if a master artist loosened his grip on the brush. Little details like moving accent lines to imply light or restrained palettes to direct attention add that extra polish that makes it a true masterwork. Words truly don’t do these visuals justice and honestly might be the most visually interesting film I’ve ever seen out of Studio Ghibli in years—which given their legendary pedigree, is saying a lot.
This is what makes somewhat upsetting when the film falls prey to the same pratfall of the last few Ghibli productions. The mood and animation silently tells more of the story than the words ever do, but in the final moments of the film, an immediately pressing impetus emerges to give the film a climax that, quite honestly, I wasn’t sure was necessary. The film seems to revolve around how Princess Kaguya feels at any given moment as well as asking the existential question of what exactly is the true nature of happiness. Once we actually get some answers near the end of the film, it’s not exactly an answer for those questions the film sets up.
Honestly, I feel like the emotional impact of the film is so strong and so resonant that it managed to carry me through to the film’s eerie conclusion, but I would be quick to understand if audiences (particularly western audiences) found themselves very confused with final moments of the story. As easy as it would’ve been to simply rely on the imagery of the animation through to the end, this choice probably stems more from the nature of the source material rather than a misstep of the direction of the film.
Story issues aside, the film exudes a restrained and haunting air throughout its runtime. Shots are framed like paintings in a gallery and music punctuates little moments of the film, only making itself heard with hard piano strikes at some of the more intense scenes. Ghibli films have usually had an incredible eye for minutia, and Takahata exhibits the same mastery in his portrayal of an old, yet legendary Japan.
So if you’re already a huge fan of Studio Ghibli, making a point to see Princess Kaguya is a no-brainer at this point, but for everyone else I’d still say this one is worth checking out. The simple story keeps the film easy to follow, despite some missteps near the end, but even if the folktale isn’t enough to hold your attention, the animation and atmosphere will certainly keep you glued to your seat.
As one of the better Ghibli films of the past decade, Princess Kaguya will go down as a haunting, yet beautiful piece of work, much like the princess herself.