Note: For any of you Rochester readers, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” does not play in or around the city. I had to drive to Ithaca and watch it at the unique Cinemapolis.
Isao Takahata has a pristine talent of injecting a strong vitality for life with enthusiasm for its pleasures yet always seems to underline it with a sense of futility. Consequently, many of his stories treat this dynamic as a way to express the fragility of life itself, that all of the joys and fears and hopes that life brings forth before us can end as fleeting as it began. These are fundamental similarities between Takahata’s revered masterpiece, “Grave of the Fireflies,” and his most recent masterpiece, “The Tales of the Princess Kayuga.” The tragedy of this whole film originates from the fragile nature of Kaguya’s existence. Nonetheless, Kaguya, herself, bursts with vivaciousness and is thankful to all that life has to offer.
It must be said with steadfast conviction that “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful film. The hand-drawn and paintbrush animation moves with intimacy; the love and care of its creators can be potently felt by the audience within every frame. The story blossoms so magically yet organically. When a bamboo cutter miraculously finds a tiny princess inside a stick of bamboo, he immediately takes it as a sign from the heavens and puts it upon himself to raise her. When he brings this girl to her wife, something amazing happens. This miniature princess transforms into a crying baby. The now self-appointed parents, Momma and Poppa, will eventually realize that this princess grows up incredibly fast. The kids in the village regard her strangeness jovially and they pen the name Lil’ Bamboo for her because she grows just as fast as bamboo. Kaguya enjoys her childhood in the mountains, helping out with the work around the house and catching food to make a nice meal. It is a hard life, but an enjoyable one.
Yet, her accelerated growth makes childhood breeze by like a gust of wind. In addition, Poppa finds more things inside bamboo: a huge pile of gold and an arrangement of nice kimonos colored in the spectrum of the rainbow. Poppa knows what he has to do. He must treat his daughter like the princess she was meant to be. With cold spontaneity, they leave the simplistic village behind to live a life of luxury. Kaguya is treated like a princess, though she never acts like one. Her disgust to remain immobile, to put on the laborious makeup, and to become the object of men who see her as treasure, is shown through her moments of brief freedom running around aimlessly, laughing at nothing in particular, and her memories of childhood. In one dream sequence, one of the most captivating scenes I have ever witnessed in an animated film, Kaguya breaks through her mansion and runs all the way to the mountains of her youth. The drawn outlines of her figure begin to crumble into themselves, revealing something less than human. Her surroundings begin to rip apart; her reality and sense of life chaotically dissolve. Ingenious animation highlights the emotional tension and, to remain consistent, it is a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful scene.
I always refer to Scott McCloud’s fundamental analysis on understanding comics, which roughly explains that simplification in form leads to an amplification of expression. There are many moments where the animators made the aesthetic choice to simplify details, sometimes even choosing not to draw in faces. This is all in relation to the detail given to Kaguya, whose face is one of the glorious aspects of watching this film. With subtlety and minute alterations, Kaguya’s eyes tell the whole story without the need for dialogue. Her character carries a delicacy that is both vulnerable and absolutely powerful. The final scenes of this film is a defiant moment of McCloud’s concept and gives us an unapologetically ambiguous view of human frailty.
Isao Takahata’s been Hayao Miyazaki’s partner in crime for many decades in creating arguably the greatest animation studio, Studio Ghibli. Besides his famous “Grave of the Fireflies,” Takahata has managed to make animated films in ways that American studios couldn’t even fathom. His excruciatingly underrated “Only Yesterday” contemplates on nostalgia and youth in a manner more akin to Yasujiro Ozu or Wim Wenders than John Lasseter. “The Tale of the Princess Kayuga” is a fantastical folk tale that delves deep into the human dilemma of existence. It bustles with a cultural and social uniqueness of a bygone era. It focuses on a female protagonist who desires more for fully living life without fear than to become an affirmation of a man’s masculinity. If there is one thing we can say about this film is that it is a gorgeous piece of animation, maybe even one of the best. But we don’t need to stop there. Takahata has made an melodious human film of life-affirming expression. All the more reason to go see it not just as an animation fan or even a movie fan but of a fan of stories that you can take with you for the rest of your life.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya :: 137 min :: Rated PG for thematic elements, partial nudity, and scenes of violence