Another stunning animation from Studio Ghibli is released.
The announcement of Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement from animation last year received a lot of attention, but the thought behind a new film from his Studio Ghibli comes from a talent no less exceptional. You won’t find a more lavish, beautiful film in 2014 than Isao Takahata’s 78-year-old The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Takahata is also a co-founder of the company.
The story of the bamboo cutter, a Japanese folktale from the tenth century, served as the inspiration for Princess Kaguya. It describes a poor couple who find a mysterious child in a forest and decide to nurture her as a princess. Takahata takes this story and runs with it, delving into the fleeting aspect of life, the shallowness of money and materialism, and the narcissistic character of power.
Princess Kaguya is like an old Japanese painting come to life. The fluid animation is drawn in minimalist, evocative watercolors with charcoal strokes that reminded me a little of the Raymond Briggs adaptation The Snowman. A core theme of the film — how a simple life spent among nature can offer more happiness than urbanity and purported social progression — is one shared by other Ghibli works, but the painterly style helps make a more convincing case here. In one amazing scene, the princess Kaguya’s angry fantasies of escaping an oppressive environment are shown in dizzying, coarse scrawls as the character takes flight.
Princess Kaguya’s art and source material make it one of the most conspicuously Japanese films that Studio Ghibli has ever put out. But for its US release, the voice cast includes American actors like Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, and Lucy Liu. While Ghibli films often feature respectable English dubbing, I haven’t had a chance to see that version for myself. I do feel, though, that if there’s any Ghibli film that would work better in Japanese with subtitles — no matter your personal preference — it’s probably this one.
Princess Kaguya’s straightforward plot perhaps doesn’t quite justify its two hours and 17 minutes running time, and viewers unfamiliar with the original story might be thrown sideways by a cosmic twist in the third act. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is often described as proto-science fiction, making Princess Kaguya more than your average Japanese folk tale. And despite some strong scenes, I didn’t find it quite as moving or emotional overall as some of Takahata’s best work, which often has the power to massage your heart and punch you in the gut all at once. But I never felt that Princess Kaguya dragged — even at its slowest, the film is never less than stunning, and it’s hard not to be swept away by its charms.