The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya (Cert U)
2 Discs DVD/BD combo (Distributor: Studio Canal) Running Time: 137 minutes approx.
Studio Ghibli, the most recognised and revered name in Japanese animation, has long been the standard bearer of anime both domestically and internationally, earning itself the reputation of being the most consistent and dependable animation studio. However all good things must come to an end and with the announcement of Hayao Miyazaki’s (genuine?) retirement in 2014, his fellow Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata followed suit by declaring his intention to bow out too.
For his swan song project, Takahata has chosen to adapt the popular Japanese fable of The Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter which has been passed down each generation for many centuries and is ingrained in Japanese folklore.
Like all good folk tales, this one begins once upon a time where a middle aged bamboo cutter named Sanuki no Miyatsuko discovers a glowing bamboo stalk, inside which is a tiny figure of a young princess which quickly turns into a newborn baby. Sanuki and his wife raise the baby as their own, naming her Takenoko (Little Bamboo) in reference to the magical rate at which she grows – going from a motionless tot to a walking and talking toddler in a matter of days.
Back in the forest where Sanuki found Takenoko, he discovers gold bits inside the same bamboo stalk which he saves up to fund a trip into the city. He later returns and announces that all signs point to Takenoko being of royal stock and they move away so she can be trained and nurtured in the ways of nobility and eventually become a princess. While this is Sanuki’s dream, Takenoko, now renamed Kaguya, hates every second of regal life and simply wants to return to the forest and her old friends.
Dating back to around the 10th century, The Bamboo Cutter is arguably one of the earliest tales of the pushy parent wanting live vicariously through and off the talents of their offspring. Of course the central moral of the tale warns of the dangers of selfishness and allowing our young to discover their own identities instead of forcing one upon them for our own means. In other words, if a parent lives for their children’s happiness it should be one they find for themselves.
Indicative of Japanese folklore the story runs a little deeper than that as the final act demonstrates with its fantastical conclusion as the magical and the mortal meet and a clash of ideals threatens to undermine the planned course of nature. Unlike his long time associate Miyazaki, Takahata has never really made films with a distinct message and his five films for Ghibli have been largely grounded in reality, making this potent whimsical tale feel even more valedictory.
At 137 minutes this sounds like a slog but the time actually flies by. Takenoko’s early life is dealt with inside the first twenty minutes which isn’t so surprising considering she grows in almost every scene. After being deemed an oddity by the local kids she eventually befriends them, becoming especially close to an older boy named Sutemaru, whose age she soon catches up to.
Sanuki’s moving the family the city for Takenoko to become the princess they believe she is fated to be changes everything. Ignorant to Takenoko’s increasing unhappiness and failing to adapt to her surroundings, Sanuki is living it up while his wife having second thoughts after an initial settling in period of comfort.
At this point Tanenoko is as baffled as western viewers are by the protocol and traditions of the royal palace. Upon coming of age Tanenoko is given the official name of Kagura and her naming celebration is a three day bender where she remains in her room while everyone else lives it up. Five rich suitors declaring an intention to marry Kagura, leads to a make-over involving her eyebrows being plucked and painted over and her teeth blackened!
Some humour arrives as each suitor compares Kagura’s beauty – despite having never seen her – to rare treasures, which she challenges them all to find, the first earning her hand in marriage. Three years later, the first suitor returns with his treasure but is he genuine? The levity is short lived as Takahata gradually shifts the direction into a more mystical one, teasing us as to what is a real and what is fantasy.
Kagura is Takahta’s first film since 1999’s My Neighbours The Yamadas and has been in production since 2008 and no, that isn’t because it was a hand drawn, cell animated film either! What will stand out for those familiar with Ghibli’s films is how Takahata has chosen to eschew the instantly recognisable character designs and art style which has defined Ghibli’s work as much as the engaging stories, a decision he made with Yamadas and continued here.
Instead of the vibrant, highly detailed, smoothly animated visuals we have become accustomed to, Takahata has gone for a minimalist almost sketch like approach, with thick pencil lines, pale colours and fleeting detail in the artwork. But it works and adds much to the magic and whimsy of the whole experience; if anything it benefits from such economic production values, allowing the soundtrack, sound effects and voice actors (this is based on the Japanese dub) to draw us into this world of wonder. Even if the images look hastily drawn, the animation is as realistic and nuanced as ever.
The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya may not look like a Studio Ghibli film but all of the ingredients that make Ghibli films such wondrous experiences – magic, charm and depth – are all present and correct. There is so much one can say about this film, from dissecting the story and its various plot points, to the understated yet visually arresting artwork to the personal poignancy of the elegiac denouement that it would be belabouring the point. Just enjoy this fabulous gem.
First Miyazaki, now Takahata. An end of an era indeed. Arigatou gozaimasu gentlemen.
Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
Film Completion Announcement
Japanese TV Spots
Studio Ghibli Collection Trailer
Limited Deluxe Edition Includes Five Collectors Art Cards
Rating – ****
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