By all accounts a disruptive influence, director Isao Takahata doesn’t disappoint with his latest feature, The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya. A distinct departure in animation style and technique from the more refined and established recent oeuvre of Studio Ghibli, its hand-etched lines and incomplete watercolour backdrops providing a far more impressionistic vision than the accomplished and complete worlds of Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki‘s films. That’s not to say that they are in any way inferior, far from it.
Takahata’s process is seemingly unruly and apparently almost unmanageable, confounding producers and peers alike with his ‘sloth’ like production progress. Originally scheduled to coincide with Miyazaki’s own final offering, The Wind Rises, Takahata wasn’t quite ready to share his Princess with the world and pushed the release date back to 2015, all in all over a decade in production. So, was it worth the wait?
The answer, thankfully, is an emphatic and resounding yes. The illusion of the simplicity of the animation is nothing short of a masterstroke, some of the frames feel as incomplete sketches but this only lends to the lyrical beauty of the compositions. It actually serves to draw you into the screen more, focusing your attention on what you’re supposed to be focusing your attention on, and maybe even encouraging the audience to fill in the gaps with their own imagination.
Princess Kaguya is one of the oldest recorded folktales in Japan; the story of a simple bamboo farmer who one day discovers a tiny infant child inside a bamboo shoot. Amazed by his find, he takes the child home and, with his wife, raises her as his own daughter. The farmer becomes convinced of her divinity, perhaps because he found her in a tree and she seems to grow at an unearthly rate, and heralds her a ‘princess’. His claims are supported when the forest again delivers him riches, this time in the form of gold, which he uses to build his princess her perfect palace in the nearby town.
Kaguya is young, footloose and fancy free; skipping and playing with her friends when her father insists she moves to her newly constructed home. Here marks the change for Kaguya, as she’s instructed on how to be a lady fitting of her title, replete with no eyebrows and blackened teeth, she tows the line but is always bursting with youthful rebellion and passion for life. Confounding her would-be suitors, by way of illuminating dream sequences, she leads everyone to a dramatic and poignant finale.
This is a Japanese fairy-tale told with a strikingly simple emotional honesty. One sequence is so raw in its hand-drawn sketchy-ness that it has a good go at taking your breath away. Stir in some familiar but solid Ghibli thematic magic and Kaguya is a fresh, beautiful and just very nice picture.
Considering the dirth of generic lunchbox-selling animated features coming out of American studios, this year alone, then Princess Kaguya is a shining and stunning beacon of hope for the power of animation, when done right, to captivate our imaginations.