With Hayao Miyazaki now in retirement (though with a few rumours to the contrary also banding around) the future for Studio Ghibli seems a little uncertain. Adding fuel to this is the arrival of the supposed swan song from Isao Takahata, Miyazaki’s co-founder of the esteemed Japanese animation studio. An adaptation of the Japanese folk standard ‘The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter’. Takahata’s film breaks from the visual language we’re more commonly accustomed to from Ghibli, favouring the look of pencils and watercolours, like some exquisitely manufactured flick-book. And while Takahata’s previous film My Neighbours The Yamadas was a similar departure, it was nowhere near as ambitious or affecting.
We open with said Bamboo Cutter plying his trade in the forest, only to discover a tiny baby girl within the trunk of one of the trees. Captivated, he takes her home to his wife. Already the baby – whom the Bamboo Cutter deigns is a princess – has started aging at a rapid rate. Taken in by this humble, loving couple, the first half hour charts her accelerated growth to young adulthood, bedding in a friendship with local boy Sutemaru before her eligibility sees her become the potential prize for high society’s nobility.
Enjoyable as the early scenes of Kaguya are, it is her emergence as a determined, decisive young woman that kick-starts the film into it’s more engaging and rewarding main section. Once given a name, her identity rounds out confidently. Kaguya’s beauty and baring inspire reverence in all that meet her, yet the assumption from her male counterparts that she requires a man to take possession of her offends her deeply. A series of suitors are set before her, all of whom compare her to objects of great rarity, each more exquisite and sought after than the last. Kaguya dismisses them all; boldly gambling that she will not choose any of them until they bring her the objects which they have compared her to. Her rejection of these suitors paints her as the latest in the studio’s fine tradition of strong female leads, decisive and forthright even as she continues to discover herself.
Takahata’s stylistic change of pace is the first Ghibli has indulged in since it garnered such a worldwide popular spotlight, and could be seen as something of a gamble. However it suits the material perfectly and looks divine from beginning to end. The impressionistic flourishes linger long in the memory, particularly whenever fast motion is evoked. As Kaguya flees her new home back to the bamboo groves of her upbringing, the film reaches an apex of beauty, washing away colours so that her pink and red clothing pops against the near monochrome hostility of the world she can’t outrun.
For the longest time the strangeness of her birth appears somewhat arbitrary. The unfamiliar will wonder why shape her existence so uniquely at all. It is only in the film’s closing that her fantastic nature comes back to the fore; her tale of self discovery and acceptance fulfilled. Against a striking starless night, Kaguya has to decide between her Earthly existence or her true nature, while the film’s surprising final image directly references one of Western cinema’s most iconic touchstones; Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Praising Ghibli films for their beauty seems done-to-death (indeed it’s come up in every review of one I’ve done at the very least), but damn it, I’m going to have to have at it again. The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya is one of their most giving creations, visually speaking, and it’s certainly, for my money, Takahata’s finest feature and his most approachable. His have always been the black sheep of the Ghibli catalogue; from the daunting bleakness of Grave Of The Fireflies, through the honest nostalgia of the criminally underrated Only Yesterday to the more overtly unusual Pom Poko and the aforementioned Yamadas, Takahata is the studio’s experimentalist. After the popular successes of recent Miyazaki entries Ponyo and The Wind Rises, Kaguya looks set to be Takahata’s most widely seen and appreciated picture. And, as with Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, if this truly turns out to be his final film, it will stand as a more than worthy curtain call.
And, as is the norm for Takahata, while Kaguya has secured a U certificate, there are some undeniably adult themes and sequences here. The beating of one character comes with an emotional weight that pulls no punches (no pun intended), while a seemingly slapstick moment is undercut by some sobering news just moments later. There is fantasy here, but also harsh reality. The film at large is unafraid of delving into the complexities of self, self-sacrifice, adulterous desires and more. Younger viewers may not take to Kaguya as whole-heartedly as other Ghibli features because of its inherent maturity, but then its surprising how astute the young can be. For grown-ups there is much to appreciate here, not just in the delightful nature of Takahata’s creation, but also in the universal truisms that ground the film and make it’s heroine seem known to all of us.