August 9, 2014

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)

Studio Ghibli has been in the news quite a bit in the past week, with rumours - for now unfounded - that the company was going to close up shop altogether with the retirement of its co-founder and lead director Hayao Miyazaki. The news of Miyazaki's retirement gave a particular weight to his final film, the biographical anime The Wind Rises. Less high-profile has been the final film for his directing partner Isao Takahata, The Tale of Princess Kaguya. It was released in Japan last year and is now running the festival circuit internationally.

The film adapts the Japanese folk tale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. A woodcutter in the forest finds a tiny fairy princess inside a length of bamboo. He takes her home, where she transforms into a baby. The baby grows rapidly, and during her truncated childhood the woodcutter keeps finding gold and fine cloth inside the bamboo forest. He takes it as a sign, and with his newly found wealth takes the now-teenage girl to the capital to become a princess and find a proper suitor. The girl, Kaguya, would be happier if she stayed in the forest.

Takahata has never enjoyed the same profile as Miyazaki, although of the two he is arguably the more inventive filmmaker. His first Ghibli feature was Grave of the Fireflies, possibly the most depressing animated film ever made, which was released in a double bill opposite Miyazaki's classic My Neighbor Totoro. His second was Only Yesterday, an unexpected realistic drama, and his third Pom Poko, a rural fantasy about shape-shifting tanuki (a Japanese sort of raccoon dog). His fourth film, My Neighbors the Yamadas, was adapted from a popular comic strip and animated in the sketchy, pencil-based style of that strip. It took 14 years for Takahata to finally direct his fifth Ghibli film, and again he's adapted his animation style to suit his story. Princess Kaguya adapts an old-fashion folk story, and Takahata tells it with a visual style based on traditional Japanese water colours.

This is a visually striking film. It isn't as detailed an aesthetic as you will find in other recent Ghibli productions: it's almost gestural in style, and does take a little bit of getting used to. It's also a remarkably slow film. It has the story that could be efficiently told in 90 minutes; Takahata's deliberately thoughtful pace takes it 137. While this does cause the film to drag a little from time to time, it's still a remarkable effective piece. When the end comes, it's emotionally charged and deeply moving.

Ghibli regular Joe Hisaishi provides a typically beautiful orchestral score, and despite the slower pace and striking visuals this is still a Ghibli production through and through. I suspect it will struggle to match the popularity of the studio's more commercial products, but it's a beautiful addition to an unparalleled set of animated films, and a marvellous final film with which Takahata can end his long career. This is not my favourite of Takahata's films - that is still Pom Poko - but it's nonetheless a remarkable achievement.

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