Review: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Ahead of its DVD release on July 13th, we review The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, a magical animation from veteran Studio Ghibli director Isao Takahata

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is the latest work by Studio Ghibli’s Isao Takahata to come to DVD. The film isn’t a breakout Ghibli crowd-pleaser, like Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle, but it is a beautiful and memorable work of animation nonetheless.

A humble bamboo cutter discovers a tiny magical girl inside a bamboo shoot, who quickly grows into a beautiful young woman. Using the riches he finds along with her, he moves his family from their rural surroundings to the city in order to find a worthy husband for the newly-made Princess Kaguya. But Kaguya’s magical beginnings are catching up with her, and she is powerless to stop it.

Ostensibly eight years in the making, the production of Princess Kaguya actually goes back almost sixty years, to when Takahata’s filmmaking mentor Tomu Uchida was planning to film the classic Japanese legend The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Takahata worked with Uchida on his plans for the film, and although they weren’t realised at the time, he never forgot them.

Later, after his partnership with fellow famed Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki began, the two worked together on animated series Heidi, A Girl of the Alps and, noting the similarities between the story and that of the Bamboo Cutter legend, again discussed the possibility of bringing a sort of ‘Japanese Heidi’ to the screen.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is the culmination of their imaginings. The story of a magical girl, sent from the Moon and found inside a stalk by a bamboo cutter, fits the classic Ghibli model rather well; Ghibi films are known for their female protagonists, thrown into strange, fantastical or adverse circumstances. You could even argue that Japanese legends like Bamboo Cutter are the foundation the studio rests upon, and that Princess Kaguya – which is slated to be Takahata’s final film before his retirement, just as The Wind Rises was Miyazaki’s – is the natural conclusion to decades of animated story-telling.

Takahata’s films have always had a rather distinctive, almost ‘unpolished’ visual style, but watching Princess Kaguya, one gets the impression that he has finally succeeded in translating his vision completely from his mind to the screen. With this film, Takahata made the choice to combine characters and backgrounds (usually separate in traditional hand-drawn animation) on the same cell, creating an immediate and constant sense of motion; it’s almost as if the film is being drawn in front of you while you are watching it. As a whole, this gives it a dreamlike, and yet naturalistic, quality, which is a far cry from the more delineated, stylised aesthetic of other breakout, Miyazaki-directed, Ghibli hits.

This style works well with one of the film’s (and Studio Ghibli’s) central themes, that of happiness and contentment through the conservation, and contemplation, of the natural world. Beautiful depictions of natural Japan abound in Princess Kaguya: bamboo stalks, cherry blossom, woodland creatures. It’s a beautiful film, and yet also very sad, as at every turn Kaguya finds herself divided from the natural world she so loves.

You’ll notice this film is not named directly for the legend it’s based on – The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the title of which puts the focus on Kaguya’s earthly father, the man who finds her and her riches in the bamboo stalk and raises her up into a princess. The film is renamed The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, shifting focus onto the more obvious protagonist; the character in the thick of things, fighting to find her place.

And yet, all this title does is draw more attention to the fact that Kaguya herself has no agency. She is sent to Earth through no choice of her own, her father takes her from her beloved countryside to the city against her will, and then the people of the Moon threaten to take her back there – again, against her will. She is the centre of her story, but takes no active part in it, making her love for her parents, and her childhood friend Sutemaru, all the more affecting to witness.

Nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya lost out to Big Hero 6. Even so, it seems certain that it will be remembered as a classic Ghibli work, if not as fondly as some of the studio’s more widely popular hits.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya will be released on DVD and Double-Play in the UK on July 13th.

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