My favourite animation of the past decade hands down belongs to Isao Takahata’s swansong which is a retelling of the Japanese folktale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. It follows a man who finds a small girl in the centre of a bamboo shoot, he picks her up and she turns into a baby and then quickly grows into a young woman in the blink of an eye. Known as Takenoko (which translates as “Little Bamboo”), the family live a life filled with finery. Takenoko is given the title Princess Kaguya and soon begins the quest to find her a husband. The only problem is that Kaguya does not want a husband. She enjoys her freedom and finds the concept of regality to be horrifyingly restrictive. The film underperformed at the box office but the critical response is overwhelmingly positive with five stars across the board. It’s a shame that this film hasn’t received the mass audience that Spirited Away did because it is such an intricate look into traditional Japanese culture whilst merging in the pressures of being a woman in a man’s world and living up to societal expectations. Its portrayal of depression is one of the most realistic and resonating in film for me, particularly the scene in which Kaguya flees the party and sheds her many kimonos. The significance of this scene cannot be discussed enough. Kaguya is dismissing the life that her parents have decided for her. Her parents are not bad people but they have confused their own wishes with their daughter’s and this is what ultimately tears the family apart. The film was released just after Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises in a double bill that hasn’t been seen since the 1988 releases for My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies. Just as those films are completely different in subject matter and style, the same could be said of The Wind Rises and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
The animation style in this film is what makes it instantly stand out in the Ghibli catalogue. Taking clear inspiration from traditional paint and ink, it veers away from your typical Ghibli and Takahata aesthetic but the result is a beautiful use of technique and colour. It feels as though the film is a fairy-tale jumping from the pages of a book. The pastel colour scheme contrasts beautifully with the strong black strokes. This truly is art in animation and a testament to Takahata’s ability to push the envelope. The film in its entirety is beautiful but the now iconic cherry blossom scene is one of the most wonderful sequences in any film. Kaguya runs and plays as the cherry blossoms fall and the result is a scene of joy and freedom. The mix of deep black outlines filled in with delicate hues of pink are simplistic but resonate the lightness and happiness that the character is feeling. The use of colour is so important in this film as it evokes both material and figurative richness. Contrast the colours of nature as Takenoko ventures in the forests as a child which excites her with the scene in which she is gifted numerous kimonos that are made of unnatural colours in rich jewel tones. Takenoko is taken aback by the gift and loves playing with the material in a scene which is just as beautiful as the cherry blossom scene.
The character of Princess Kaguya herself is deeply complex and despite her origin as a being from the Moon, is one of the most human characters brought to film. Her journey from bamboo spirit to fully fledged Princess is turbulent and challenging. Content with the humble lifestyle her Earth parents lived before inflicting delusions of grandeur upon her, Takenoko refutes the lifestyle expected of a lady in high society. She is trapped within the walls of her mansion within the city and longs for the wilderness and freedom it brings. The character is not without her flaws. She purposefully manipulates five potential suitors to cross oceans and collect tokens for her affection. She does this knowing that she doesn’t care for any of them and knowing that it isn’t possible to gain these mythical gifts. When falling into her depression, we feel for her because she doesn’t want to let her parents down and appreciates everything they have done while at the same time sacrificing her own happiness. Ultimately, she has to ask herself if her parents happiness is worth exchanging for her own and asks for the Moon to reclaim her. Kaguya is a character who knows what she wants and this progressive outlook does not fit in within a society that has a place for her.
In an unusual move for Takahata, he recruited Joe Hisaishi to compose the music for this film. Hisaishi is known for his frequent collaborations with Miyazaki and had only just delivered a stellar score for The Wind Rises. It’s a credit to Hisaishi that he worked on these scores at the same time and yet both soundtracks have their own style and identity. The score for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya deeply lies in Japanese tradition, utilising traditional instruments such as the Koto which the titular character has a natural affinity for and whimsical woodwind that really brings you into the era and setting. Hisaishi has his own distinct sound as I have discussed in previous posts but this one feels totally unique in its approach. It feels softer and more ingrained in its tradition and heritage than other soundtracks. This could be because despite its fantastical elements, it is a film that is openly set in an ancient Japanese setting.
There are many scenes which stand out in this film for me and I have discussed a few of them in this post but the one that will remain the most heartbreaking is Kaguya’s return to the Moon. It’s a poignant sequence and one that will have you crying. When the procession of beings from the Moon come to collect Kaguya, the love that she has for her parents and vice versa flows through. It’s hard to believe that a children’s film can have such a sad ending but this is Ghibli and they are not afraid to delve into darker themes. Erased of her memories on Earth, Kaguya looks back at her parents and sees their love and smiles. This smile is bittersweet because she recognises the love that they have without understanding who the love is for and what it meant to them.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is tied with Castle in the Sky for first place as my favourite Studio Ghibli film. It’s unlike any film you have ever seen and unlike any film you probably will see in the future. It’s a glorious achievement and worthy of being Takahata’s final film. The love and care that went into this film is so evident. I truly believe that the love for this film will grow in the coming years and it will become just as admired as some of the other popular Ghibli films in the catalogue such as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. It’s a film that is not an easy watch but it is so captivating and rewarding.
What do you think of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya? Let me know in the comments below!