The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no Monogatari): Written by Isao Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi, directed by Isao Takahata. Starring: Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii, and Nobuko Miyamoto. Running Time: 137 minutes. Based on the folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.
I will not mince words- The Tale of Princess Kaguya is not only the best animated film I have yet seen this year, it is the best film overall I have seen this year, period. Over the past two decades, animation has been increasingly oriented towards CGI and greater, more “realistic” details and colors, and in many ways this is a good thing- the visual depth seen in many recent animated films is, on a purely technical level, unlike anything that has come before. But as a work like this one reminds us, when we neglect the older, simpler, less-visually-stuffed hand-drawn styles of the past, something is lost in the process. An ability to capture so much of the elementary nature of our existence with so little becomes that much harder to cultivate and attain. Roger Ebert once wrote, in his review of Princess Mononoke, that “Animation…is freed from gravity, and the chains of the possible. Realistic films show the physical world; animation shows its essence.” If he is right, and I would argue forcefully that he is, then The Tale of Princess Kaguya is an essential tale indeed, one that encompasses themes of growth, familial love, the joys of youth, the sweet nostalgic aches of aging, and the core sensations that make our lives worth living.
This is the first feature-length film in 14 years to be directed by Isao Takahata, who co-founded Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki back in 1985 (his last film, released in 1999, was My Neighbors the Yamadas). It is currently slated to be the one of the last feature films produced by Studio Ghibli for some time (the only other one slated for an upcoming release is When Marnie Was There, which first aired in Japan this past summer), although rumors that the studio’s production arm is being shut down permanently seem to have been premature. How fitting then, especially if it does end up being true, that this latest work of his will rank alongside Grave of the Fireflies (also by him) and Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke as one of the greatest films the company has ever released.
Based off of an old Japanese legend, we witness the story of a spirit of some sort that appears inside a bamboo stalk before a simple farmer. Astonished, he takes the tiny creature back to his wife, where it turns into a bawling, rapidly-growing human baby right before their very eyes. Soon afterwards, the farmer’s wife finds she has milk for her despite her advanced age (and what a miracle it is, to finally have a film that treats breast-feeding as something beautiful instead of shameful). The girl’s subsequent growth is astonishing; in a single scene, she goes from imitating sounds, to hopping, crawling, and walking, all within a few minutes. Much later on in our story she is given the name “Princess Kaguya” in a formal ceremony, but for the other children in their small, remote village, she is called “Little Bamboo,” because her rapid growth resembles that of the bamboo stalks in which she appeared. To the elderly couple, overjoyed at suddenly finding themselves parents (after a fashion), she is quite simply, “the Princess.”
Despite her mysterious origins and astonishing growth spurts, she is in every other respect a perfectly normal child, content to run, swim, climb trees, steal fruit, and hunt down fowl for dinner alongside the village lads, singing nursery rhymes all the while about the simple beauties of life. Her biggest partner-in-crime is a somewhat older boy named Sutemaru, but due to her growth spurts they are soon close enough in age to wonder about what else their relationship could become. These moments, depicting reckless childhood fun in the countryside, will evoke a great deal of nostalgia for older viewers, remembering times their limbs were just as limber and their thirst for adventure just as unquenchable.
This all comes to an abrupt end for her when her father announces that they are moving to the Capital, so that the Princess can be raised as a proper Japanese noblewoman, with respect paid to all the normal traditions. Strongly possessive of her ever since he found her, her father becomes only more convinced that this is the “true” reason she was sent to them, and despite Kaguya’s pleas (and sometimes the objections of the mother as well), he persists in pushing for them to live in a splendid castle, lessons in music and calligraphy, the restricted movements and laughter of a “proper lady,” and plucked eyebrows and heavy makeup; in short, everything that will make them fit in with the upper classes. The attempted physical and behavioral makeover of Kaguya is accompanied by other traditions as well; a raucous party when she receives her first period (boys only, of course- she is kept in a side room so that no one sees her), and lines of suitors promising her that she is worth more to them than all the treasures of the earth (again, all without ever having seen her).
The animation style we see here is quite different from what most Ghibli fans would expect. Instead of the sharp and clear lines between characters, objects, and backgrounds that Miyazaki and most of his colleagues employ, both the characters and backgrounds seem to have been etched out and colored with chalk, and the dividing lines done with charcoal pens. The edges are not smooth, the colors not perfectly uniform. The evenness of the lines between people and backgrounds blur when there is motion, and sometimes, there simply are not very many details on-screen in an image- faces could lack features, and backgrounds could swirl together. The effect shifts between being dreamlike, and resembling old pieces of artwork strung together along a wall to tell a story. It is difficult to put into words why this style, so simple and yet so passionately energetic, has the effect it does. Suffice it to say that I cannot imagine this story being shown in any other form.
This film has powerfully reinforced my already-firm belief that animation is, in certain respects, the superior form of cinematic storytelling. As the above quote from Roger Ebert points out, live-action films are always crucially limited by having to show things that are “real-“ real sets, trees, houses, people, clothing, animals, weather events, etc. etc. The purpose of art, conversely, is to break down or transcend all the barriers that our physical surroundings impose on us. We cannot physically walk across the surface of the sun and live, but in our minds we can, and in our art we can capture the feelings and sensations of such an experience. Here, a simple shot of a red flower opening to the dawn, or a butterfly pulling itself out of its cocoon, or a breathtaking sequence underneath a cherry tree in full bloom, capture the elegance and beauty of our world better than any high-res photograph could- the side details are not to be found, because they are not needed. The superficiality of the object’s physical appearance is stripped away, leaving behind the true nature of the subject at hand.
Although the film starts off as a tale of childhood magic, it crosses over into the realm of an epic fantasy by the end. We know that Kaguya’s origins are supernatural, but answers as to exactly what she is are offered only in pieces. The movie does not last much longer than two hours, yet we seem to traverse years in people’s lives and miles upon miles of the Earth. There are traditional morality tales to tell as well, especially when Kaguya challenges her suitors to prove their love by actually finding the magnificent artifacts they compare her to. Many of the characters need to learn these lessons just as much as we, the viewers, do.
Above all else though, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the story of a father and daughter, how their relationship grows and changes over time, and how both are hurt by the father’s stubborn insistence that his vision, his traditions, and his idea of proper happiness must also, quite naturally, be Kaguya’s as well. Many may scoff at his simplemindedness, or criticize how old-fashioned he is, which is easy for us living in an age where no tradition, no old custom, is above ridicule, but tread carefully, dear reader, if you do so. Yes, this conflict is here set within a particular time in Japanese history, but the central strife between the desires of the parent and the instincts of the child is truly timeless, bound to continue playing out for as long as humans exist. There is no villain here- just people, living the only way they know how. The father can be pig-headed, yes, but his simple, pure love for Kaguya shines through everything he does, and is heartbreaking in its intensity. And what difference is there between Kaguya being compelled to pluck her eyebrows and move around only on her knees and Western women being compelled to force themselves into corsets, and to not aspire to being anything other than a housewife?
This film is a powerful rebuke to those who would claim that, when compared with modern animation technology, older hand-drawn styles no longer have a place in this world. It looks like scratches and slight shadings compared to the overwhelming details in many of the year’s other great animated works, like The Lego Movie, The Boxtrolls, How To Train Your Dragon 2, and even the other major Ghibli release of the year, The Wind Rises. It is not loud, and is only humorous in its effortlessly natural depiction of many of life’s little absurdities. Its colors are subtle and light, and the only details on the characters or background are strictly that which is needed to differentiate one from the other. The movement is, again, entirely natural, with none of the frenetic motion filling the edges in seemingly every other animated film (and increasingly many non-animated works) of the past few years.
And despite all that, or perhaps precisely because of it, The Tale of Princess Kaguya rises far above nearly all other films, large and small, that have been released this year. Its story is a thousand-year-old legend in its home country, and this cinematic rendering of it is worth being remembered at least as long. It is a rousing call to a life of fullness, of laughter, and of joy, that can somehow always find a reason to cast of the darkness that so easily weigh us down through the thousand-and-one cuts of daily living. It recalls the things of beauty, pure and often painful in their intensity, that make humanity and human life, for all its tragedies and comedies, something truly awesome. It is, in my opinion, the best film of this year, and of quite a few of the years preceding it.