Upon the 2013 retirement of visionary director and Studio Ghibli head honcho Hayao Miyazaki, filmgoers could have been forgiven for wondering whether the impossibly high standards the studio have set themselves over their 30-year existence could be maintained without the guidance of its most prolific director. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Ghibli’s first feature since Miyazaki’s departure, proves without doubt that such worries would be woefully misplaced. Directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata (his first since 1999’s My Neighbours the Yamadas), it is a visually stunning example of traditional animation; rendered as it is in brush-strokes and watercolour, it is somehow reminiscent of both Japanese woodblock prints and the humble children’s picture book. Exquisitely beautiful from first frame to last, Kaguya is a deceptively deep tale of free will and determinism, joy and sadness, and the difficulties of remaining true to oneself in the face of material attractions and societal pressure.
Based on the 10th century Japanese folk tale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the story of Kaguya is a fairytale – one of magical realism, in which the everyday and the fantastical are never far apart. Working one day, the bamboo cutter of the folk tale’s title discovers a tiny girl inside a glowing bamboo shoot. Believing her to be a divine gift, he and his wife vow to raise her as their own. Her rapid and sudden physical and emotional growth leads her to quickly outgrow her humble surroundings. She is taken by her foster parents to be a noblewoman in a mansion in the capital city, where she is named Princess Kaguya. Here she must contend with pompous and undesirable suitors, the overbearing pressure to behave like a “proper” princess, and her own painful longing for her childhood friends and the carefree life she once led.
It would be criminal to discuss Princess Kaguya without expressing slack-jawed amazement at what has been achieved with its animation and art style. With such traditional and seemingly basic techniques, to have created such a full, rich, and believable world is pretty staggering, and makes a convincing case for the need for increased recognition of animated art direction (see point nine here). The motion of certain colours and lines changes subtly throughout the film to wordlessly evoke further emotion and meaning to a scene – never is this more powerful than when a still-inexperienced Kaguya hears some skeptical genteels baselessly gossiping about her. Anguished and enraged, she cries out – losing her heretofore corporeal form, she becomes an expressionistic swirl of colour and anger as she bursts out into the night. The beautiful and tranquil world of Kaguya twists nastily into an oppressive mess of harshly-scrawled black lines and churning grey masses as she symbolically sheds layers, and races to outrun her demons and escape to the past.
This scene is just one example of the real darkness contained within the film – despite its apparent humbleness and fairytale setup, this is no kids’ film. At one stage, blaming herself for a suitor’s death, Kaguya sinks into a very real depression – again, all colour drains out of the world as she stares sightlessly at the scenery. Kaguya decries the falseness of her new privileged life and blames herself for everyone’s misery. Only some sage and timely advice from her stalwart mother stops her from tearing herself down completely.
At its heart, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a warning about the harsh realities of ageing and the heaviness of the responsibilities that come with it. Growing up happens far too quickly, and no matter how much we want to, we can never wholly reclaim the past. We can feel nostalgia for it, and perhaps even briefly experience it again in some way – in the right place, at the right time, and with the right person, as Kaguya does in her final flight with true love Sutemaru. But as we learn (and Kaguya is particularly brutal on this front), these memories will eventually be forgotten and left exactly where they were created: in the past.
All of which makes Kaguya sound like a rather bleak day at the pictures. In fact it is quite the contrary, as for every moment of dark soul-searching poignancy there is another of sheer joy, wistfulness, or gentle, good-natured humour. Its grander themes are conveyed in such a way as to be open-ended, thoughtful and with a hint of melancholy, rather than as overwhelming and daunting as they could easily be.
Whilst reports of Studio Ghibli’s imminent demise have been “greatly exaggerated”, their future post-Miyazaki does seem to necessitate some form of downscaling in order to compensate for the loss of their most profitable filmmaker. However, based on the evidence presented by the humble epic Princess Kaguya, the future of the studio – if far from certain – does appear to be as bright as the bamboo shoot from which the Princess came.