Based on a 1,000 year old fairy tale, The Tale of Princess Kaguya breaks your heart as it inspires you to love your life. The (originally called) Tale of the Bamboo Cutter has been the source of a number of different literary and media treatments in Japan. Ghibli Studio co-founder Isao Takahata took eight years to direct this animated feature version, completing it in 2013.
I’ll call it a fairy — instead of a folk — tale since it tells of unearthly beings and dimensions: A moon sprite (let’s call her) is found by a kindly elderly couple. They take her in.
We watch her grow swiftly from a joyous baby to a luminous, though troubled teenager. The adopting father misinterperts the meaning of her miraculous “showing up” in their lives and the supernatural gifts that follow her into their rural, impovershed world. This sets off a chain of unfortunate events.
The movie’s hand drawn action at first glance looks no more exceptional than that in 1960s TV cartoons. But by the the time we see the mysterious ‘Little Bamboo’ (aka Princess Kaguya) a few minutes into the film learning to sit and crawl, then take her first steps (in a hilarious, enthralling sequence) the spell is cast.
“The scenes describing her early years, in which she learns to jump like a frog, are a miraculous study of the complex (e)motion of childhood that will have parents gasping with recognition,” writes reviewer Mark Kermode in the UK Guardian.
I got just as caught up in the portrayal of the older Princess Kaguya and found myself continually scrutinizing her simple cartoon face for cues as to what she was feeling at a given moment or what she might do next.
Like a good actor, an animator finds the tiniest motion, impulse or facial flicker that carries meaning and moves the story forward.
In this clip from a Japanese documentary, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya Behind the Scenes – Beyond Traditional Animation (about the making of the movie) director Takahata ponders a small moment when the princess’s childhood friend, Sutemaru cuts into a melon they’ve stolen from a farmer’s field.
The doc details how Takahata an his top team of animation and backgrund artists, voice performers and film score composer Joe Hisaishi, practically frame by frame felt their way to the movie’s completion in a process of trial and error. (It makes children’s book illustration seem easy in comparison.)
Takahata insists that he’s no animator and does not draw. Yet he and storyboard artist Osamu Tanabe apparently sat side by side during months of the production, scribbling and roughing out pencil scenes. His thumbnails and compositions (are said to) visually underpin much of the film.
Takahata’s ‘art style’ has been called ‘dainty.’ Reviewers point out how Princess Kaguya with its soft watercolor backgrounds influenced Asian scroll painting and Tokyo’s Ukiyo-e wood block prints evokes delicate children’s storybook illustration,
Others describe the passionate roughness of the drawings. Takahata has said in interviews that his goal was to make frames feel ‘dashed off’ and spontaneous. To me the movie embraces a spectrum of styles — from bare minimalist, abstract backdrops with lots white space to the richly detailed settings of many of the key scenes.
“Films nowdays tend to fill in so much for an audience, shouting to them that ‘this is the real thing!’ — especially with 3D and CG,” Takahata says in one video interview. e. “You can get light and shadows and anything you want and everything’s spelled out for you. Using that format [in today’s animations] there’s much that’s been lost.
“What’s been lost is the ability for the audience to imagine things. And that imagination ability is declining,” he says.
While the art wants to be and ‘incomplete’, sequences are painstakingly fiddled with, re-worked and cut to create an illusion of life that’s spontaneously flowing and fleeting.
Takahata’s ‘dashed off’ reality has the advantage of a powerful script. It’s based on the archetypal story type, A stranger arrives/Everything changes, and folklore that has stood the test of time. While it feels deeply Japanese, it reminds us of Western literary works like the Greek myth Persephone, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
What begins as an enchanted princess tale expands into a searing meditation on the crux of love, life, and death. The conclusion shatters us not by what it shows, but how it us makes us feel.
Below the late Roger Ebert speaks about a 1988 Takahata animated film, Grave of the Fireflies (about two children surviving in post-war Japan) and anime in general.
You might also enjoy this video on the new Studio Ghibli animation museum and the documentary, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, about Ghibli Studio’s other, more celebrated co-founder Hayao Miyazaki.