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Tale of the Princess Kaguya, The (2013)

A stunning epic from a master of animation

There are few filmmakers, in live action or animation, who have the experience or temerity to make a film as refreshingly honest as Princess Kaguya. Isao Takahata is one. 

Possibly the longest-working feature animation director of all time, Takahata is not exactly the most prolific. He even has the reputation amongst his peers of being a ‘sloth’. His last cinematic venture was in 1999, the exquisite newspaper comic strip come-to-life My Neighbours the Yamadas. In those years since, he has been working towards Princess Kaguya, a film which, at 79 years old, may well come to be his last. 

Based on one of the oldest and most popular Japanese folk tales, it begins when a lowly bamboo cutter stumbles across a Thumbelina-sized baby inside a bamboo shoot. Taking her home to his wife, they surmise she is a gift from heaven, and are immediately surprised when the half-pint sized baby grows to the size of a 8-month-old in seconds. “Little Bamboo”, as the local children nickname her for these spurts of growth, is a vivacious and lively girl, sporting, courageous, carefree.
The grove where she was found soon becomes a place where gold nuggets and impossibly fine silk clothes begin to shower down on the bamboo cutter. He becomes convinced that she is in fact divine royalty and must as such live life in the capital where she can become a princess, as is her destiny as a celestial being on earth.

The film is a marvel. It would take someone with Takahata’s experience to have the guts to make a film this raw and visually focused. Curiously, as with the swan song of his “rival”, Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (2013), Takahata’s latest film is essentially a soul-soaring tragedy. Many of the themes in his previous work, such as daily life, a love of nature, wistful nostalgia, are present here too, this time observed in the impending light of mortality. Not quite as bleak as his most famous film, Grave of the Fireflies, Kaguya, nonetheless, is unafraid of glimpsing the harsher parts of life. How it manages to do so and retain a U certificate is testament to Takahata’s ability to evoke and symbolise. Even those familiar with the source folk tale won’t know what to expect, though. Takahata isn’t interested in plot; this is a portrait.
Even though Princess Kaguya’s place of origin is the moon, it’s a very touching expression of The Next World. Takahata understands these kinds of literal and symbolic ways in which animation can express ideas, and uses his newly developed style (heavily influenced by the work of Ghibli veterans Kazuo Oga and Osamu Tanabe) to express the vastness of experience on earth with the simplest of lines.

There are moments when the drawings moving onscreen capture a profound and accomplished emotion that is overwhelming. Drawings so raw and sketchy have moved this way before, but never in such perfect service of story. From the unconditional happiness expressed in folding lines when the bamboo cutter’s eyes crease in joy, to the impossibly delicate rendering of a newborn baby rolling around on the floor, the animation in the film alone stands up and fulfils that 100-year old magic trick of having us feel, believe and care these people exist. That is to say, during the running time, the drawing isn’t what sits at the forefront of making Kaguya special. The style of gentle lines and delicate watercolour washes is a fantastic front for the film’s understanding of human psychology.
Among Takahata’s many achievements with the film is having taken a fairy tale, known for stock characters with muddy motivations or flat psychologies, and imbuing them with painfully human hearts and minds. All this is felt not despite but because of the unfiltered raw power of the pencil lines. Never before has the description of animator as 'actor with a pencil' been so apt. The entire gamut of human behaviour plays out, at one point or another, with unflinching honesty that only comes with intense observation and the years of experience to present them in a meaningful way. Children skip and play in the woods, fathers fret and fuss, vain young men desperately yearn for the approval of women whom they have never met, and women struggle to find a place amongst all this chaos and inequality. Despite the folktale framing, Takahata is clearly not interested in fantasy, and wants to reflect life as it is lived, and felt.

In depicting daily life, little moments are taken to show how people of the period carved wooden bowls from trees, or tended to charcoal fires. These moments have been present in Takahata’s work since his very first feature Hols, Prince of the Sun (1968), and speak to the depth of the worlds he creates. He enchants with animation presented in its simplest form, be that depicting the fantastical or the everyday. As he once remarked, quoting Picasso, he sees animation as ‘lies that reveal truth’. The care given to depicting something like a bowl-maker working gives the idea an importance that elevates it from procedural documentary to something of clear thematic importance. The fact as much care is given to such scenes as the film’s more fantastical elements is in large part the film’s robustness. There is as much joy in these scenes as there are in the more obvious set-pieces.

“The Princess Kaguya", as “Little Bamboo” comes to be anointed, has many faces. She laughs, cries, aches for truth, love, understanding, freedom and happiness. As she is made to walk the line towards nobility, the vivacious girl from the bamboo grove begins to submit to the wishes of those around her and recedes into memory, as a well-mannered, obedient princess is born. In a similar fashion to how directors like Cronenberg employ body horror to heighten a psychological change, Takahata understands the power of depicting transformation physically. The way in which Kaguya’s face is drawn changes throughout the film in the subtlest of ways, as new parts of who she is reveal themselves, to her and to us.

In the film's most ambitious and arresting moments, the idea of transformation is pushed to extremes the likes of which could only really be shown in animation. The entire fabric of the film as we have known it up until that point is torn to shreds, by Kaguya herself. Like the Gremlins tearing apart the projector halfway into Gremlins 2, but this time, instead of it being a meta joke, it is deeply rooted in the psychology of the main character and has a profound effect as the turning point of the story. Moments like these set Kaguya apart as the towering achievement it is. Takahata is taking techniques from developmental animation, and transplanting them in the perfect place in a popular feature film. Crucially, not just because he can, or because it looks good, but because it truly holds a place in telling this story.

Joe Hisaishi, another Ghibli veteran, working here for the first time on a Takahata film, is arguably the film’s second voice. In 2013, he not only created the haunting, lifting score for The Wind Rises, but also that for Princess Kaguya. That he managed to do so is testament to his mastery. From the film’s opening titles, he is the final wash on the watercolours, giving a richness, history and heart that settles into the blank spaces onscreen. His ability to create themes that express the heights of joy and sorrow is unparalleled. There is as much of Kaguya’s soul in his score as there is in the expressions given to her by the animators.

As Miyazaki and Takahata films have been wont to do so, the middle act of Kaguya takes a retreat to examine the main character in the most intimate ways, and how she is made by the people who surround her. It’s tempting to say this makes the film slightly too long, but on reflection, for a man who once made a 4-hour documentary about canals, this is Takahata pacing on good behaviour. 

Considering Takahata's entire career, Kaguya is a very touching homecoming. Returning to folktales, returning to motifs of a young girl hopping through the countryside (a la what is considered by many to be his ‘masterpiece’, a TV adaptation of Heidi), the film feels like the achievement of what Takahata dreamed animation could become when he first entered the industry in the 1960s. Deferring to the wisdom of old stories, he is asking us to embrace that which cannot be fully understood but can be felt in many ways: life as we live it on earth. As the film closes, it is clear that Kaguya is a deeply personal project. Its ability to express the complex longings of a heart full of worldly desires leaves you breathless, and with much to digest.

THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA is released theatrically in the UK from March 20th 2015 via STUDIOCANAL. AVAILABLE NOW ON BLU-RAY AND DVD in North America Via GKIDS/UNIVERSAL