During the Studio Ghibli season at the BFI last year, for the first time, I watched Grave of the Fireflies. Powerful, profound and deeply moving, I was in shock that this was from the same studio that brought us Ponyo and My Neighbour Totoro.
Lest we forget, there are two key artists behind Studio Ghibli: the surrealist, playful and obsessed-with-blustery-winds-and-planes Miyazaki, and the sombre, heartfelt vision of Isao Takahata. It is the latter who directs The Tale of Princess Kaguya – and it is one of the finest films of 2014, balancing profound truth with dreamlike fantasy.
Based on a Japanese folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, The Tale of Princess Kaguya begins as the aforementioned cutter finds a small princess within a growing stick of Bamboo. Initially a mini-human, once she is returned to his home, she immediately becomes a fast-growing baby. Nicknamed ‘Lil’ Bamboo’ by local boys, her Father is adamant that she is referred to as ‘Princess’. Indeed, to her family, this is what she is. The bamboo reveals stunning fabrics and gold, enough for the adoptive mother and father to give Kaguya a lifestyle limited to only the most affluent. But this leafy lifestyle is changed dramatically when her family move out of their small, rural homeland and into a luxurious mansion, complete with a hired stylist who ensures Kaguya looks the part of the Princess. Set in the Heian era, this expectation includes blackened teeth and plucked eyebrows – a far call from the lush forest and playful animals of her childhood. And, to make matters more complicated, she is also expected to find a suitor.
This mere synopsis fails to showcase the weight and gravity of each moment. Kaguya is the precious daughter of bamboo cutters and the story is soaked in allegory. They want only the best, and give up everything for this. We know that her happiness was found in nature. In running, and jumping, and playing in the fields and valleys. Her growth, as a child, spurted significantly in these surroundings, while her entire period in the palace is static. Creatively, the story is accessible and fun for children, but it’s poignant and challenging for adults too. Your offspring growing up so fast; the conflict between accepting what your child wants and desperately trying to shape him or her in your own image; the moment you confront the brevity of life.
Crucially, The Tale of Princess Kaguya proves, once again, how the wonderful animation of Studio Ghibli cannot be surpassed. A run through fields becomes fuzzy, scratched and disconnected. Lines are messy and expressive while watercolours are left unfinished, akin to the style of My Neighbours the Yamadas. Opposed to digitised animation in the vein of Pixar, or even hard, bold colours in established cartoons, The Tale of Princess Kaguya adores painterly motion, with clear brush strokes and tonal adjustments that openly address the use of material. A long film, running over two-hours, breezes by, and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to shed a tear in those final moments.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya was playing as part of the BFI’s weekly Family Film. They will soon be screening Emil and the Detectives, Basil the Great Mouse Detective and Spy Kids in the coming weeks, with a wide selection over the half-term weekend.
This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on May 19th 2015