The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)

A Princess’ Crime and Punishment

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the latest, and possibly the final, feature from the Studio Ghibli production company. Under the meticulous guidance of director Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies (1988), this hauntingly beautiful tale is unlike anything the studio has produced in the past, yet it remains honestly true to the Ghibli stories that are celebrated, treasured and universally loved.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the story of an elderly bamboo cutter, who one day, while out on his bamboo plantation, finds a mysterious and glowing bamboo shoot. As it opens, he discovers a tiny princess living inside the shoot. After taking this petite miracle home to his wife, the princess transforms into a human baby and begins to grow at a rapid pace. Soon, she becomes a little girl, who the locals affectionately name Takenoko, meaning bamboo child or ‘Li’l Bamboo,’ as she grows quite swiftly. The bamboo cutter eventually desires to give Takenoko the life of a real princess, thus sets off to the capital to build her a palace. When the mansion is completed, the bamboo cutter and his wife take Takenoko to the city where she can become Princess Kaguya, leaving her current life behind. Time propels forward rather quickly and Kaguya soon becomes a young woman, with rumors of her beauty spread across the land. Men flock from far and wide to seek her hand in marriage. Uninterested in their attention, and disenchanted with her life in the fortress, Kaguya longs to return to the freedom she once had before her life in the capital, surrounded by nature and friends.

Not your typical Disney princess!
Not your typical Disney princess!

Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 in Tokyo, Japan, by directors Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away (2001), Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, Princess Mononoke (1997), and has since, become widely known as the Disney of Japan, with its unique style of animation and profound storytelling. Over the years, the studio has achieved great international success and has become a gateway between Japanese and Western cinema. This final feature, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, has been a long and harrowing journey for all involved. The vision for The Tale of Princess Kaguya began some 50 years ago, with the original concept established at Toei Animation, the company that launched Isao Takahata’s directorial debut in 1963. The project began under Tomu Uchida, in the 1960s, and was to be an adaptation of the traditional Japanese fairy tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter; in spite of this, the project never came into fruition.

It wasn’t until eight years ago that producer Yoshiaki Nishimura approached director Isao Takahata with the concept for the film. Takahara had previously directed five other features for Studio Ghibli — including Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Only Yesterday (1991), Pom Poko (1994) and My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) — and at first, refused the project, arguing that while he believed the feature should definitely be made, did not think he was the right person for the job. After 18 months of pestering and arm-twisting, Takahata got on board with the project. Though, to producer Nishmura’s dismay, it was another 18 months before the script was, at long last, complete. It took the production house five years before finalizing 30 minutes of working storyboards, and another three years — consisting of long hours and sleepless nights — before the project was finally finished.

'You've got my life in the palm of your hands.'
‘You’ve got my life in the palm of your hands.’

Those familiar with Studio Ghibli’s past films will no doubt notice that this picture employs a new and unfamiliar art form. Making use of stunning watercolors, as well as tradition Japanese calligraphy, the word of Princess Kaguya is constructed in a sketchy, almost childlike manner. At first, it appears that the film is unfinished; the animation lines seem to flicker and are jumpy, suggesting that what we are watching is simply a rough-cut of an ongoing project. While initial confronting — the colors are pale and washed-out, making each frame bleak and dreary — it isn’t long until the animation manner and movement, which Ghibli have become so renowned for, is apparent, and any concerns regarding this alien style fade away. As the film progresses, the charm of its characters, infused with a childlike humor, draw out a sense of innocent wonderment within this fable of magic, and it becomes plainly obvious as to why this novel approach is well suited to the project. With breathtaking scenery, this simplistic technique captures truly remarkable sequences of both action and stillness. The soundscape for the feature should also be noted, as it is such an integral part of the narrative, again making use of customary Japanese instruments and practices, as composer Joe Hisaishi, Spirited Away (2001), creates a score that somehow manages to embrace the viewer completely, encasing them in the immersive storyline.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a sincere emotional journey, one filled with moments of euphoria, as well as those of desperation and sadness. The creative team have fashioned a truly empathetic character in the tiny princess, as she is ceaselessly enchanting, from the moment she sprouts out of the ground. Without spoiling too much, The Tale of Princess Kaguya deals with the pain of being separated and aching loss, ultimately ending with a parting; a fitting bittersweet farewell to the Studio Ghibli legacy.

4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended

Reviewed by Kathryn Snowball

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is released through Madman Entertainment Australia