PERHAPS it’s appropriate that Isao Takahata, the Studio Ghibli veteran who gave us the emotional abyss of Grave of the Fireflies, should bring a profound melancholy to his latest (supposedly final) film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, his first in over a decade. Soon to be an octogenarian, Takahata has managed to produce one of the most poignant, arresting and flat-out beautiful pieces of animation in a long blue moon, putting younger animators to shame in the process.
Adapted from ‘The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter’, a 10th Century Japanese folktale, Kaguya centres squarely on its eponymous protagonist. Born from a bamboo stalk and raised by humble bamboo cutters, Takenoko (‘Little Bamboo’ – lots of bamboo) rapidly matures to a young woman in tune with nature and, in doses, her own supernatural powers. Due to her gifts, she is ordained formally as Princess Kaguya and gets whisked off from her bucolic home to a palace in the city.
Assailed by the trappings of court – including her bug-eyed etiquette teacher, Lady Sagami – and a legion of suitors vying for her affections (and power), Takenoko finds herself torn between her familial obligations and her own pining for the simpler country life. The film wisely focuses on Takenoko’s struggles to assert her identity, especially as the surrounding plot gets quite complicated towards the latter half. No doubt this is a carry-over from its folktale roots, but Kaguya largely navigates its knotty narrative with grace, always glueing its attention on Takenoko.
Its pace might best be described as a stately procession, allowing the audience to soak in the film’s rich, impressionistic colours and shapes. Stencilled in with deceptively simple charcoal strokes, Kaguya has a river-like fluidity to its surroundings. Takahata has mentioned he was influenced in part by The Man Who Planted Trees, but another key influence seems to have been traditional Japanese paintings, with their washed out pallets and vibrant colours.
The reliably stunning animation only accentuates Ghibli’s impeccable reputation – no frame goes unfilled with loving care by Takahata’s gifted team. The subtle gestures of the court scenes; the slapstick exasperation of Takenoko’s father; the rustle of grass in moonlit fields; they all combine to form an aching, gorgeous work of art.
Joe Hisashi, scoring his first non-Miyazaki Ghibli film, lends his sweeping, lyrical strings to proceedings, but only at key moments. There are long stretches that feature only dialogue and sound effects; as a result, the moments when Hisashi’s music kicks in are whirlwinds of sound and feeling. For all its outlandish elements of super-grow bamboo babies and mythical relic hunting, Kaguya is surprisingly restrained for much of its running time, echoing the rigid formality of Takenoko’s My Fair Lady-style education.
Much like Miyazaki at his best, however, the more fantastical sequences in the film are all the more breathtaking in light of its leisurely pace. A scene where, Takenoko, dreaming, barrels out of court and blurs into a flurry of charcoal lines is an amazing feat of pure motion. Another scene with Takenoko’s beau, Sutemaru, is similarly marvellous, the two soaring through the air as if they were a part of it. These are otherworldly moments in a deeply humanist film that, far from feeling indulgent, actively contribute to the depth of its characters.
Most human of all is Takenoko herself. Her maturation to a woman is a joy to watch, and it seems inevitable she will go down as one of the most compelling Ghibli protagonists. Her confidence in dealing with her facetious suitors is matched by her displeasure in courting. Her uncertainty in her identity, particularly in the last third, is similarly endearing.
Her preference for nature over materialism is reflected by Takahata, who revels in laying out gorgeous vistas of flower-strewn meadows and juxtaposing them with the grimy bustle of the city and the narrow halls of the palace. When the film returns to nature, it takes a deep, contented breath.
For Takahata – a visionary every bit as important as Miyazaki – it’s a well-earned rest. As a swan song, Kaguya is even more of a triumph than The Wind Rises. As a film in its own right, it’s one of the all-time best from the studio he co-founded. It’s difficult to imagine a more fitting, or fonder, farewell.
*For clarification purposes, I saw the subtitled version. While the Ghibli dubs are usually of high quality, I’ll always recommend watching the version with the original cast and the original language.