With rumours about Studio Ghibli’s hiatus, and even possible closure, it seems all the more relevant to appreciate the quality of their films. While Disney was certainly the game-changer, Ghibli has films that only become more complex and insightful as one gets older. In The Tales of Princess Kaguya, not only do we get the Japanese flavour of a Disney Princess, but also, after nearly 15 years, we see Isao Takahata, finish his next animated splendour. Takahata is often considered the number 2 to Hayao Miyazaki, but whereas the head Ghibli honcho has retired after The Wind Rises, this director is still at the drawing board at 79 as he revives Japan’s oldest fairy tale yet.
The plot is based on one of the oldest works of Japanese prose, wherein a poor Bamboo Cutter stumbles upon a Shinto Thumbellina and raises the strange girl with his wife. As the years go on, more magical gifts are bestowed upon the couple such as gold and garments, which encourages them to raise Kaguya away from her pastoral home and in the city as a proper princess. In contrast to Takahata’s most recognised masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies, Kaguya does not share the same bleak and harrowing lenses on life – but this does not make it any less mature. The story moves at its own pace, not giving in to the twists and turns of most animated films, and works at a more contemplative tempo than its predecessors. It’s a morally and emotionally stimulating film, with some bittersweet musings on the brevity of life and memory.
But it is Kaguya’s quality of the watercolour animation that shines brightest, sketchy yet fluid in movement that separates the fairy tale with other Ghibli pictures (much like My Neighbor The Yamdas). The various brief shots of the wilderness are particularly detailed; the movements of birds and hogs are so natural and intricate that you would naturally believe the pictures to be rotoscoped instead. On the flipside of the animated attention to nature (no different from the majority of Ghibli flicks), Takahata uses the medium of watercolour in favour of the narrative: at one of Kaguya’s most devastated points in the film, she barges through the wilderness in ink strokes and charcoal gashes that become more nightmarish and surreal as the protagonist loses control. These frames were eight years in the making, and it deserves every drop of praise it gets.
Joe Hisaishi’s musical score should also garner attention as it complements the pastoral watercolours in a soft orchestral hue, while running musical motif of Kaguya’s Nursery Rhyme provides that melancholic tone that permeates throughout. And of course, as always, Ghibli’s Japanese cast challenge the poor voice acting found in western products with something that is charming but not cartoonish.
The only downside to The Tales of Princess Kaguya is its running time. For a story about how fleeting life can be, especially for Kaguya/ Lil’Bamboo, who can literally grow at the speed of bamboo; the pacing does not follow suit. At over 2 hours long, I can’t help but feel that some narrative trimming in the second half could have made this film blossom as much as it does in its design.
Overall as a celestial parade descends in Kaguya’s palace, Takahata triumphs in giving us a film that does not adhere to the sentiments of the traditional fairy tale. There’s still the same quality of heart here that is found in the other Ghibli films, but the bittersweet sentiments make Kaguya not quite like your ordinary Disney Princess.
Directed and Written by Isao Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi
Starring: Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii and Nobuko Miyamoto
Run time: 137 mins.