The latest from Studio Ghibli is the studio’s most beautiful film yet.
Releases October 17th. Director: Isao Takahata. Produced by Studio Ghibli. Advance screening provided by Fantastic Fest.
Tales of Studio Ghibli’s demise may have been exaggerated, because The Tale of Princess Kaguya is simply breathtaking. The film features Isao Takahata’s return to directing at Ghibli — he last directed the 1999 comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas for the studio, though he’s perhaps still best known for the war drama Grave of the Fireflies. And though Princess Kaguya has some comic moments, this fairy tale packs an emotional punch that’s more reminiscent of Fireflies.
An adaptation of Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, Kaguya tells the story of a child found in in a bamboo frond. When a bamboo cutter stumbles across her, he takes her in and raises her as his own daughter. The story is simple, but the animation, with its lively, hand-drawn feel, brings it to life. At times we see Kaguya drawn with great care and precision, showing her as a the regal princess her adoptive father feels her to be. But other times — particularly when Kaguya is overcome with emotion — the art style becomes rough and wild, the sketchiness of the drawings conveying a sense of urgency. It’s a style that perfectly suits the story and does a beautiful job getting the tale’s emotional message across.
The story itself is the film’s weakness, as it rolls out at a very leisurely pace (Kaguya is just over two hours long) and doesn’t contain many surprises. However, it’s the way it’s packaged with art, music, and acting that makes it something special. Though Kaguya’s life as the daughter of the bamboo cutter is simple, she’s happy to explore the wilderness and play with local children. However, her father thinks she deserves to be raised as a proper princess — and when he finds gold and fine cloth in the woods, he decides to use this to build a grand home in the city and, presumably — since the story is told from Kaguya’s perspective, details like this aren’t clear — purchase a title for the family.
Kaguya is initially thrilled by the grand new home, her enthusiasm is soon curtailed by her tutor Sagami, who intends to teach Kaguya to behave like a lady — which means no running, no playing, no swimming, and, generally, no fun. And though her father has taken well to city life, always dressing in fine clothes, Kaguya can often be found with her mother, weaving, cooking, or gardening, even though her father reminds them there’s little need for either of them to do such things.
When Kaguya comes of age and suitors start arriving to ask for her hand in marriage, she sends them off with impossible tasks — much to the disappointment of both her father and tutor. However, her refusal to marry only draws further attention, finally resulting in the emperor himself coming to court her.
As Kaguya tries to escape from this life, the story becomes more dream-like: she imagines herself fleeing from her new home and running back to the mountain on which she used to live only to wake up still in her room. She finds a childhood friend and they run and fly over the fields together, but then, again, she is back home. Sequences like this are presented as truth without fitting into a coherent narrative.
These dreamy sequences is in contrast to the film’s otherwise grounded nature, which focuses on many of the simple aspects of Kaguya’s life: sharing a melon with a friend, chasing a kitten, or spinning beneath falling cherry blossoms. Even though Kaguya is clearly something not of this world, the story is avoids leaning on magic until the final act… and because of this, the final act doesn’t quite seem to fit with the rest.
Still, these scenes pack an emotional punch and offer insight into Kaguya’s thoughts that we would have otherwise missed, so it’s hard to begrudge their presence — especially when they’re so beautifully animated.
Bottom Line: Though the stylized animation won’t be a hit with everyone, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a gorgeous piece of animation that has as much emotional punch as anything Studio Ghibli has ever produced.
Recommendation: Ghibli fans should be on the lookout for the American theatrical release in October, because the animation is definitely worth watching on the big screen.[rating=4.0]