The latest, and possibly one of the last films to come out of Studio Ghibli is the Oscar nominated The Tale of the Princess Kaguya; an unhurried, spare, astonishingly beautiful piece of work.
Based on a Japanese fairy tale, the plot concerns a bamboo cutter, who finds a mysterious being that resembles a tiny human princess inside a magical bamboo stalk. The girl takes human form, and once adopted by grows at an accelerated rate, discovering a special connection with her earthy, rural surroundings, befriending local children and becoming the pride and joy of her adoptive parents. But when the bamboo cutter subsequently discovers gold and fine clothing in other magical bamboo stalks, he becomes convinced that heaven wants the girl to become a princess, so against his wife’s advice he takes her to the capital and uses the money to transform her into royalty. She becomes Princess Kaguya, but reluctantly, only doing so to please her adoptive father. Gradually the separation from her countryside childhood home takes its toll on her happiness.
This is a lovely film, stunningly animated by director Isao Takahata, and hauntingly scored by Joe Hisaishi. It also looks like nothing Studio Ghibli have released before. Superb use of watercolour, charcoal and deliberately impressionistic, unfinished backgrounds make for highly imaginative viewing, adding to the ethereal, fairy tale quality. Perhaps it is the use of these techniques that enable the outlandish, surreal finale to somehow work – although I do acknowledge that for some it may be a stretch.
Ultimately as with all fairy tales, one can apply many interpretations. It can be viewed as a melancholy coming of age story, a feminist critique of Japanese culture, a warning about parental burdens of expectation on children, a Buddhist fable, an environmentalist statement, or a combination of the above.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya will prove too long and slow for some tastes, but it has many hugely memorable scenes, from the early simple moment where the baby princess imitates a frog, to the afore-mentioned left-field finale. If you are fan of Studio Ghibli, you will almost certainly love it, as I did.
Simon Dillon, March 2015.