It is quite possible that The Tale of Princess Kaguya will be the final film Isao Takahata ever makes. If you do not recognize his name, know that the occasion is significant and worthy of our acknowledgement. Takahata is the co-founder, along with Hayao Miyazaki, of the the Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki, more famous than Tahakata in the US, is now 73 years old. He retired earlier this year after his final film, The Wind Rises.
In October, Isao Takahata told the LA Times that he has no plans to retire. “I still have films that I might want to make,” Takahata said, “but there’s a reality of whether I can make them or not at my age.” Takahata is now 79; he has spent the last eight years hand-drawing Princess Kaguya. I do not think it’s unreasonable to wonder whether we will ever see another film from the two master animators of Studio Ghibli.
Studio Ghibli will continue without them, but the exit of these two directors will mark the end of an era. One could argue that no studio has produced a more consistent level of work for more years than Studio Ghibli.
Right at the top of that list of achievements is Takahata’s latest release, The Tale of Princess Kaguya.
The film is an adaption of the 10th century Japanese story “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” which is the oldest known narrative in Japan. “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” is well-known throughout Japan, but will provide an unfamiliar experience to Western audiences; I mean that in the best sense. Among the most exciting experiences at the cinema is the feeling of unrecognizable weirdness and wonder that comes with newly imagined worlds. Chief among the success of Princess Kaguya is this feeling of unfamiliarity.
The Bamboo Cutter in this story is Okina, and in the opening moments he finds a glowing bamboo tree that holds a tiny princess. Okina brings the tiny girl home, and with his wife Ona decides to raise the girl. They call her Princess, but the village children call her Takenoko (bamboo shoot), because she grows not at the pace of human child, but a rapid sprouting bamboo shoot.
Takenoko’s childhood is one of pastoral pleasures. She grows up around animals and farming and gardening. She plays rough-and-tumble with the local children, one of whom, Sutemaru, will be a love-interest. Her life is one of blossoming wonder and close-to-the-earth delight. That is, until Okina finds another bamboo shoot full of gold and fine silks and linens. Okina takes this as a sign that his princess is truly a Princess with a dowry from heaven. He moves her to a mansion in Kyoto, hires a governess to teach her propriety, and sets her on a path towards royalty and boredom. It is not a life meant for Takenoko.
Central to the story of Princess Kaguya are questions of identity. Where did the tiny princess come from? Why does she grow so fast? These questions are present in the visuals, as she is open to the world only to grow up behind blinds, hidden out of sight; the theme is also mirrored in the shifting names given to the girl from the bamboo shoot.
When she becomes of age, her father presents her to a man of the court, Inbe no Akita, for her naming day. Seeing her beauty and childish, untamed spirit, Akita names her “Kaguya”, after the light that she exudes.
The second half of the film is built around the pursuit by suitors for the hand of Kaguya. Prospect after prospect–including the Emporer himself–arrive at the mansion to plea for the hand of Kaguya, who’s reputation has spread throughout Japan. Kaguya rejects them all.
Her father is overjoyed by the suitors who come for Kaguya, but the princess herself falls to melancholy. Eventually, five princes kneel before the princess, all comparing her to the most treasured prizes of legend. Wanting none of them, Kaguya tells each to bring her back the legendary items they have mentioned. The suitors are sent around the world in search of fantastic items that are never to be found.
As The Tale of Princess Kaguya unfolds, the true home of the bamboo girl is made known. Some readers may know where she comes from (one translation of the title gives the answer away), but the decision by Takahata to provide no explanation or motive for how or why she appeared leaves audiences full of the warm, disorienting magic of childhood fairy-tales.
Takahata’s hand-painted, brush style animation adds to the magic and unfamiliarity of the story. Takahata works in a fluidity that heightens the fairy-tale nature of the story as well as the transitions of life from childhood in the dirt to beautiful princess. The pastoral youth of Takenoko is drawn in lines that often dissolve around the edges, while the crisp, complete lines of Kaguya’s depression in the mansion matches the hardness of the age. A third style interferes to match Kaguya’s anger or depression, one of blurred lines and scraping colors.
Unlike Takahata’s previous films, there is no concern in Princess Kaguya for maintaining the director’s trademark realism. His earlier masterpiece, 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies, was a tragic experience, unflinching from the despairing reality of children in wartime. Which makes the lightness and fantasy of The Tale of Princess Kaguya even more captivating. At 79, Takahata remains capable of finding a unique vision and style with which to surprise his audience, even in telling the oldest of stories. If The Tale of Princess Kaguya does end up being the final film Takahata makes, the last of the epic animation classics from the two Ghibli founders, it will be a fitting finale, and a powerful final scene for such an expansive, accomplished career.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya opens Friday, December 5 at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Film Society. There are Japanese and English language showings.