Director: Hidekazu Sato & Akira Miki
Cast: Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki, Joe Hisaishi,Yoshiaki, Nishimura & Toshio Suzuki
Running Time: 86 minutes
Release Date: March 27th
The original Japanese release plans that Studio Ghibli had for Isao Takahata’s latest film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, was for it to come out on the same day in the summer of 2013 as Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, mirroring the simultaneous release of their films Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbour Totoro twenty five years previously. Alas this was not to be, all for the reason quite common when it comes to the development of Takahata’s films; production delays, in this case it was that the storyboards had yet to be completed. Since that time The Wind Rises has had its international release, Miyazaki has announced his retirement (though whether or not he sticks to this retirement is still up to debate, after all according to his long time producer Toshio Suzuki this is roughly the sixth time he had plan to retire) and the future of Studio Ghibli remains uncertain having ceased productions, they say temporarily, after the release of When Marnie Was There in July of last year. Should this really be the end of Studio Ghibli only time will tell, but with Princess Kaguya, the studio has released possibly one of the crowning achievements of its already illustrious history, delivering a film that is stunningly beautiful in every sense of the word.
Based on a tenth century folktale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, thought to be the oldest Japanese folktale known to exist, Princess Kaguya tells the story of a bamboo cutter who discovers a tiny girl, less than the size of his palm, hidden within a luminous bamboo stem. Taking her home, he and his wife are surprised when suddenly she transforms into a baby, where the bamboo cutter and wife decide to raise her as their child giving her the name Princess. She grows quickly, leading to her nickname ‘Takenoko’ meaning little bamboo from the local children. While the girl revels in her idyllic countryside surroundings, her father, upon discovering pieces of gold and fine clothing within other bamboo shoots, believes she is deserving of a so called better life, uses the gold to buy a large house in the city to integrate her into the customs of the elite. Given the formal name of Princess Kaguya, she longs to escape back to the countryside and back to the beauty of nature.
It is a conflict between the desire of personal happiness and freedom with the rigid class structure and conformity of society. Princess Kaguya is appalled by formalities expected of higher-class women in the Heian period of Japanese history, where woman must pluck out their eyebrows, dye their teeth black and isolate themselves from everyone, even at a celebration in her honour. It is in these sections of the film that resemble the themes of the period films of the great Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, who looked at the past to highlight the injustices of the present. The injustice here is how the restrictions of the patriarchal system forces women to deny their own true selves in order to appease both men and their social class. While Kaguya manages to find a way to rebel against the appearance and the behaviour of this system, she is heartbroken to see the effects of this system in a scene when after finally getting a chance to visit the countryside and joyously playing below some cherry blossom trees, her joy is suddenly snatched away after accidentally bumping into a local peasant child, the child’s family desperately apologise to her before leaving her and continuing along their way. Seeing this family, a family that resembles the same type of people with whom she grew up with, grovel towards her and treat her as a superior, destroys her as she discovers that while see can leave the city, she can’t abandon the constraints of society.
As always with films from Studio Ghibli, the animation is absolutely sublime. While in contrast with the rich colour palette of Miyazaki’s films the animation style found here in Princess Kaguya — done in a watercolour design that resembles traditional Japanese scroll art — could be seen at first glance as looking minimalistic, the film is rich in wonderful details. An early example is a scene where the infant Kaguya crawls and rolls around the floor, imitates the hopping of a frog and then learns to stand and walk. While the character design is just fabulous, what is wonderful about this scene is that it portrays how quick the passage of time is within a young child’s life. In another wonderfully animated scene, during the celebrations being held in her honour, Kaguya dreams of running back to her original home, her journey depicted within a impressionistic background of broad dark strokes showing her inner turmoil in quite a stunning way.
Apart from one false note, in which the death of a minor character is depicted in a comical manner that comes across as jarringly mean-spirited, the fact that The Tale of the Princess Kaguya can hold its place along the finest films produced under the Studio Ghibli banner is a testament to its overall strength. Boasting gorgeous visuals alongside deeply resonant undertones that touch on the ideas of childhood, female identity, parenthood, social class, life, nature and the passage of time, it is a film that is full of the joy and sadness of life, all through a magic lens that makes it incredibly profound and deeply melancholic.