by Kathie Smith
Isao Takahata might be the lesser-known name behind Studio Ghibli, but he has provided not only an artistic foundation for the studio—alongside his friend, collaborator and fellow director Hayao Miyazaki—but also the start-up power that gave Ghibli its legs. It was Takahata and Miyazaki’s early work together on the TV series Lupin III (1971-72) and feature Panda! Go Panda! (1972) that shaped their style and galvanized their desire to establish an animation studio with producer Toshio Suzuki. A mere three years into its existence, Studio Ghibli released binary masterpieces that remain standard-bearers in their field: Miyazaki’s endearing My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Takahata’s heartbreaking Grave of the Fireflies (1988). Twenty-five years later, these two Wonder Twins of animation prove they are still a collective creative force for the history books with two of the finest films of the year (animated or not)--The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s swan song, and The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, Takahata’s first feature since his underrated 1999 comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas. But in a small shift of thematic role reversal, it is Miyazaki who lays claim to the historical political narrative in The Wind Rises (much like Takahata’s Graveyard of the Fireflies) and Takahata who unfurls a magical story of life’s grand joys and bittersweet sorrows in Princess Kaguya, not unlike Miyazaki’s Totoro.
The Film Society of Minneapolis/St Paul
Director: Isao Takahata
Producers: Yoshiaki Nishimura, Seiichiro Ujiie
Writers: Isao Takahata, Riko Sakaguchi
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Cast: (Japanese) Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii, Nobuko Miyamoto, Atsuko Takahata, Takaya Kamikawa, Isao Hashizume, Hikaru Ijuin; (English) Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Darren Criss, Lucy Liu, Beau Bridges, James Marsden, Oliver Platt
Premiere: November 23, 2013 - Japan
US Theatrical Release: October 17, 2014
US Distributor: GKids
Based on a well-known and oft referenced Japanese folktale also known as “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” The Tale of The Princess Kaguya tells the story of an elderly childless couple who sustain themselves on the fruits of a bamboo forest. One day while in the grove, the bamboo cutter notices a glowing stalk of bamboo, and as he approaches finds a shoot springing from the earth cradling a small miniature girl wearing decadent robes. Convinced that the gods have blessed him, he carries the girl, whom he refers to as “Princess,” in the palm of his hand home to show his wife. Overjoyed to put her maternal skills to work, his wife plucks the small girl from her husband only to have the doll-like figure suddenly transform into a crying baby. The baby quickly grows into a boisterous young girl—her doting foster parents still calling her Princess while her friends (perhaps more appropriately) nickname her Li’l Bamboo—who finds an affinity with the natural surroundings of her country home.
Although life is for the most part as usual for the couple, the bamboo forest continues to bestow gifts of gold and bolts of fine silk in a rainbow of colors to the bamboo cutter. He takes this as a divine signal to cultivate a life of nobility in the city for their adopted daughter. And quite suddenly the modest family abandons their life in the country and moves to a newly built house in the city, leaving the fun-loving Li’l Bamboo persona behind for her new life as Princess Kaguya—a name given to her on becoming an adult. Her life becomes a lavish sprawl of servants, tutors, ceremonies and potential suitors, all of which are incongruent to Princess Kaguya’s personality.
It’s at this point where most movies would sink into predictable melodramatic conflict in order to provide inevitable resolution, but Princess Kaguya thankfully avoids these traps. Although the young Princess is indeed plagued with conflict—the sadness of leaving her friends behind and the fear of facing what is required of her as an adult—her struggle represents a heartfelt search for her independent spirit among life’s oppressive expectations. Her sorrow comes mixed with a flair of defiance, refusing to conform to tradition. Rumor spreads about the beauty and talents of Princess Kaguya, causing men to come calling from near and far. Despite her lack of noble lineage, five wealthy men of social status come to proclaim their love for the Princess, each comparing her to a rare precious item: a jeweled branch of Mount Horai, the fur of a mythical Fire Rat, Lord Buddha’s stone bowl, a five-colored stone hanging from the neck of a dragon, and a swallow’s cowrie shell. Unprepared for marriage (and perhaps missing her hometown sweetheart), Princess Kaguya states that the first to bring her one of these coveted items, as proof of their love, would have her hand in marriage. Her request might be a selfish trick but it is also a clever way to prolong her more carefree life.
As with any Studio Ghibli creation, the perceptive narrative is only half the pleasure. The animation is a mixture of Takahata’s simple freeform art of the Yamadas and the more graphic drawings of Pom Poko (1994) and Only Yesterday (1991), painted in soft colors until the action calls for sudden vibrancy. In one of the most astonishing sequences of the year, Princess Kaguya sits alone, cloistered in her room, as she overhears men talking about her with a hint of ill intent at a party hosted by her father. In a burst of sadness, fear, and anger, she charges from her room, her house, the city, in a near abstract blur of line and color under a full moon—all accompanied by Joe Hisaishi’s beautiful score. She tears through the countryside, only stopping when she gets to her hometown and finds that everything has changed—her home inhabited by strangers and her friends gone. Her momentary and dreamlike fury plays out like something you might expect to see in an expressive samurai fight with arms, robes and legs flying over the horizon and through the weeds.
Princess Kaguya’s discovery is not a happy ending but a realization that the true piquancy in life is found both in its peaks and its valleys, and perhaps more importantly in the people with which life is experienced. This message might be a bitter (if not inconsequential) note, considering the maligned times we find ourselves in, where violence trumps compassion (or logic) in nearly every news story. But I would challenge the notion that art has failed us (supposed by A.O. Scott in the New York Times this past weekend) with The Tale of The Princess Kaguya as proof of a movie that inherently ask its audience to see the consequences of our actions and the value in every person. These are the principles that subtly line this movie, told with visionary verve for a multigenerational audience. As opposed to being an escape from these troubled times, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya attempts to shed some light on the more understated patches of our day-to-day that we take for granted—a sentiment that lives beyond the boundaries of a movie.