I’ve said on this blog before that I’m no connoisseur of feature-length animation or Studio Ghibli – in fact co-founder Isao Takahata’s The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya is only the second Ghibli film I’ve watched – but to my eyes the hand-drawn animation here is beautiful, as if the director has overseen the bringing to life of thousands of old Japanese paintings and sketches. Little wonder then that Takahata’s fable, which is based on the traditional folk tale The Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter, famously took over eight years to complete, though that long gestation period is not solely due to the animation work. Each frame is a mixture of bold black strokes and soft watercolours, deliberately left unfinished at the edges, while the old-fashioned visual style is complemented by a story that serves as a grand homage to traditionally-held values: an appreciation of nature, of life, the importance of being happy with your lot, friendship, honesty, the pleasure of working the land and even (eventually) obedience.
I’m well aware that translated animated films can often be let down by the dubbing actors, but the unlikely western performers who came together for this one work well: James Caan is the socially-ambitious Bamboo Cutter, Mary Steenburgen is his perceptive wife and Chloë Grace Moretz is Kaguya, who is initially found by the woodcutter in miniature form growing in a bamboo shoot. This magical creature continues to develop quickly, and her adoptive parents soon become aware that she is special, giving her the title of ‘princess’. She plays with the local kids, roaming free, and there are many cutaways showing the simple beauty of the natural world they inhabit: frogs leaping; swaying blades of long grass; a deer watching frolicking children. However Kaguya’s idyllic childhood ends abruptly when she is moved on to the city, and a life of courtiers, lessons in exemplary behaviour and stuffy pageantry. Such is the lot of someone who grows up too fast, the elderly writer-director sagely notes.
For the most part Takahata steers away from the usual fairy tale plot lines. Kaguya rejects all the men who come her way, and rightly so: she is smarter than them, even the Mikado (Dean Cain), and pines instead for childhood companion Sutemaru (Darren Criss); not for romantic reasons, exactly, but simply because Sutemaru was her companion when she was allowed to do all the things she loved. By rejecting a number of suitors Kaguya says no to a life of subservience and control, and she eventually has to confront her father on the issue, for it is he who is forcing her to walk this path in order to better his own standing in society; the lowly Bamboo Cutter has ideas above his station. It’s surprising, then, that Takahata includes a scene in which an upset Kaguya ponders whether she should have been more obedient and whether she should have gone along with all of her father’s wishes. Still, it’s just one mis-step in a film that otherwise has reasonably-solid feminist credentials, at least if you’re going to compare it with other older folk tales, in which a young woman’s pairing off with a male provider is usually of paramount importance. Following a rather spectacular interpretation of a raigō The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya ends on a bittersweet note, during which Takahata ruminates on the transitory nature of life. I found it surprisingly moving, and only at the end did I realise just how much I’d become attached to the main characters, particularly Kaguya herself.
Directed by: Isao Takahata.
Written by: Isao Takahata, Riko Sakaguchi. Based on the traditional story The Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter.
Starring: (Japanese version: Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii, Nobuko Miyamoto). Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Darren Criss, Lucy Liu.
Cinematography: Keisuke Nakamura.
Editing: Toshihiko Kojima.
Music: Joe Hisaishi.
Running Time: 137 minutes.