Oct 17

JQ Magazine: Film Review — ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’

"For his finale, Isao Takahata has made a film that encompasses all of human experience." (GKIDS)

“For his finale, Isao Takahata has made a film that encompasses all of human experience.” (GKIDS)

By Lyle Sylvander (Yokohama-shi, 2001-02) for JQ magazine. Lyle has completed a master’s program at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and has been writing for the JET Alumni Association of New York since 2004. He is also the goalkeeper for FC Japan, a New York City-based soccer team.

When one hears the name “Studio Ghibli,” the director Hayao Miyazaki immediately comes to mind. Starting with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in 1984, Miyazaki has continually delivered hit after hit for the past 30 years, making him the most successful contemporary Japanese filmmaker (animated or otherwise). Moviegoers can be forgiven for not recognizing the name of Miyazaki’s partner and Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, who tends to operate behind the spotlight. But Takahata is an accomplished animator and filmmaker in his own right.

In the West, he is best known for the extraordinary Grave of the Fireflies (1988), a powerful anti-war epic about the firebombing of Kobe during the Second World War. Roger Ebert considered Fireflies one of the best war films ever made, and it certainly ranks among Studio Ghibli’s greatest efforts, elevating the standards of anime depicting serious subject matter. Takahata’s other films were successful in Japan but received limited distribution in the West—notably the ecologically minded Pom Poko (1994) and the comic strip-inspired comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999). From this selection of titles, it is clear that Takahata can work in a variety of genres with different animation styles. Unlike Miyazaki, he delegates much of the animation work and does not have an immediately recognizable aesthetic.

Last year, both Miyazaki and Takahata announced their retirements. For his swan song, Miyazaki released the controversial The Wind Rises (read JQ’s review here), which managed to receive criticism from both the political left and the right in its treatment of the war. Takahata decided to end his career with a project that he conceived and abandoned 55 years ago: A feature film version of the tenth century folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Both films were to be released simultaneously in a show of solidarity, but production delays resulted in a later distribution for Takahata’s film. The film became a big hit domestically, and is now receiving its U.S. release under the title The Tale of the Princess Kaguya in both subtitled and dubbed versions.

The title character in the original story (the woodcutter) finds a tiny baby in the midst of a bamboo tree and brings her up with his wife. Nearby, the woodcutter finds a large supply of silk and gold gowns and assumes that the baby is a princess. There is a supernatural quality to her, as she grows at an abnormally fast rate and soon blossoms into a young adult woman. At that point, the woodcutter decides that divine destiny has intended for her to be a princess and brings her to the city, whereupon she holds court and finds the affections of a number of young princes. However, she has fallen in love with a young man from a lower class. Further complications arise when it is revealed that she only has a limited time on her Earth before she must return to her natural home—the moon.

The story is a curious mix of Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Just as Cinderella can love her Prince Charming only before the stroke of midnight, Kaguya’s time with Sutemaru (the commoner) is limited to the fifteenth night of the lunar month. And like Ariel, Kaguya desires to live among the humans—she does not want to return to the world from which she came. Unlike those fairy tales, however, Kaguya has a more fatalistic ambience to it, as the princess knows that her fate is predetermined. She will lose her love, her adoptive family and the world of Earth forever. The world of the spectral moon gods is a sterile, ghostly place at odds with the vitality and joy of life on Earth, even with all of its faults. During her brief life on this planet, Kaguya managed to grow from an infant into adulthood and experienced the full range of emotions and character traits that mark humanity, including, greed, desire and lust. For his finale, Isao Takahata has made a film that encompasses all of human experience.

Visually, the film is marked by a hand-drawn, brush stroke-style animation with the hue of watercolor. This style effectively denotes the scroll and woodblock paintings of the era in which the story is set. It is a true testament to the Ghibli animators’ skills that this animation concept works in today’s cluttered marketplace of CGI and 3D computer animation. The characters are brimming with life and psychological depth despite the 2D nature of the drawings (as in scroll artwork, the color white figures prominently in the mise-en-scéne). Superficially, the art design has a simplistic streamlined look, but after the 137-minute runtime is finished, the film reveals a complexity of imagination found in other Studio Ghibli films. Kaguya and her “moon people” bring a Ghibli-esque “magical realism” into the narrative that would be commonplace in Miyazaki’s films. Overall, this is a fitting finale for Takahata’s career, but one hopes that neither he nor Miyazaki is truly finished working. After all, both directors have announced premature retirements in the past.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya opens today in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto. Click here for additional theaters.

For more JQ film reviews, click here.

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