When Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement from film making in 2013, it was assumed by many that Studio Ghibli was no more, or at least no longer in the same realm of untouchable quality as before. This jump in logic is not completely warranted as Studio Ghibli is not just in the hands of Miyazaki; co-founder Isao Takahata has been just as much the studio’s soul as Miyazaki since the beginning. Producer of works such as Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky, and director of Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata is not as recognized as Miyazaki but has still created work worth celebrating. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is his first Studio Ghibli film since 1999’s My Neighbours the Yamadas that he has directed and co-written. The film’s recent nomination at the Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature Film is a clear sign that Studio Ghibli’s creative spirit does not end at The Wind Rises, even if Miyazaki isn’t in the driving seat anymore.
Originally based upon the folktale ‘The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter’, Princess Kaguya begins with Sanuki no Miyatsuko discovering a tiny girl dressed in elegant robes inside a bamboo. As he takes the girl home to his wife, she suddenly transforms into a baby and continues to grow at an abnormal rate. After a few days pass he finds gold pieces and magnificent clothes from the same bamboo he discovered the girl in. Believing it to be a message from heaven, he uses the gold to turn their child into a princess and move to the capital with all the riches, clothing and training a princess deserves. However as she grows older and begins to gain attention from noblemen of the capital, Kaguya begins to grow weary of what it actually means to be happy.
Before even a line of dialogue is spoken the animation is immediately noticeable as it’s incredibly different, not just Studio Ghibli’s films but to anime films in general. The closest relation it has in terms of Ghibli films is Isao’s last film My Neighbours the Yamadas. Both use the sketchy style with watercolours, but Kaguya displays that particular technique magnified by thousands. Whereas Yamadas was purposely cartoonish and uncomplicated, Princess Kaguya is deceptively simplistic; from the colour shading to the character animations, every frame of this film could be considered a piece of art, gorgeous enough to put up in your home and stare at in awe for hours on end. The use of colour is spectacular yet subtle; brighter colours fill the screen when Kaguya is at her happiest, and then in one scene when her mood suddenly snaps, the palette immediately darkens. It’s refreshing to see such a different look from the studio that is mostly recognisable for their iconic Miyazaki animation design.
Princess Kaguya is largely a faithful re-telling of the original Japanese folktale. However where the folktale focuses on the Princess’s beauty and courtship by various noblemen, the film instead takes the time to ground it in everyday life, so a large chunk of the first third shows the princess growing up in the countryside alongside other farmers and children. The playful songs they sing and her close relationship with childhood friend Sutemaru paint a perfect and picturesque world. It’s in this opening, where the magic and plot are kept to a bare minimum, that Kaguya is at her happiest. ‘Happiness’ is a word that’s said a lot in this movie but not by Kaguya herself; instead, it’s her father who takes his gifts from heaven and uses them with the best intentions to purchase what he think is his daughter’s happiness. But one person’s happiness is another’s misery; what her father thinks makes her happy instead pulls her away from the earthy roots she came from and it slowly starts to unravel from a sweeping folktale to a harsh story of foolish means makes foolish ends.
Even when the film brings reality into the picture it still weaves the narrative seemingly like a fairytale. ‘Once Upon a Time’ is the first line of dialogue for starters, but as it progresses, it seems to reject its own roots. Halfway through the story, when multiple suitors ask for Kaguya’s hand, they are turned away in a comical fashion to search for prize items that may or may not even exist. In fact, tales of male heroes overcoming the impossible have been painted as their own fairytale in the past with the ending of princesses or fair maidens being the overall prize for such efforts (such as the Brothers Grimms’ Hans My Hedgehog).
This isn’t a satirical look at folktales but an acceptance of reality, in which fairytales have no place. The film purposely takes away a large chunk of the ending from the original tale and the result is a lot more depressing than you’d expect, considering the way it started. This is not due to lack of opportunity; if Kaguya was an American animated film, then the one prince that reveals his sincere devotion to the Princess or the return of her childhood friend towards the climax could have been perfect avenues for a flowery ending. But instead Kaguya has the Princess’s origins rather hastily written in towards the climax, giving way to a sharply edited conclusion. Non-happy endings aren’t a rarity for age-old folktales or Ghibli films in general, but several factors work against it for Princess Kaguya. The storytelling narration that is present for the majority of the movie has her last line just before the final scene; there’s no book-end to her presence, so the actual ending feels inconclusive without it. Then there are the parents who play a large role in Kaguya’s wellbeing but their final moments are also handled ruthlessly and there’s no closure of any sort. Perhaps that is the point; a lack of knowledge that all will be well is frankly what life is about, however the final delivery and the revelation of Kaguya’s heritage could have been better woven in to make the whole film feel more conclusive rather than a sudden cliff-drop of the heart. It’s a shame that her supposed origins in the folktale aren’t the same as in the film as it could have worked, lending enchantment to the final message.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is without a doubt a stunning film, visually rapturous, with a gorgeous music score and depth that warrants multiple watches. The unconventional ending will be a tough swallow for general movie audiences, and at 2 hours and 17 minutes in length it feels considerably too long, but if you need proof that Studio Ghibli is still one of the most beloved and fantastical animated movie makers despite Hayao Miyazaki’s absence, look no further.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is in UK cinemas from 20th March.