Found inside a shining stalk of bamboo by an old bamboo cutter and his wife, a tiny girl grows rapidly into an exquisite young lady. The mysterious young princess enthralls all who encounter her – but ultimately she must confront her fate, the punishment for her crime.
The latest film from Studio Ghibli, ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’, is the first for the studio directed by 80 year old Isao Takahata since 1999. He was the man responsible for the masterpiece ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ and his films often supply a lot of heart and focus on the human condition at an emotional level, with slightly less fantastical elements than the work of his contemporary, Hayao Miyazaki. His latest is based on a famous Japanese fairytale called ‘The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter’, about a tiny princess who is discovered in a piece of bamboo out in the forest by a bamboo cutter. The tiny princess shows an abnormal growth pattern and blossoms into a young princess in no time at all, with the film’s focus on her growth into the princess she is fated to become, and on how she adapts to life on earth.
The early parts of the film are the most joyous as Kaguya spends time with her adoptive parents and the local children who also stay in the forest, with her christened Little Bamboo affectionally by the other children. She bonds in particular with one of the older kids, Sutemaru and this relationship forms the emotional core of the film. Once the film’s setting moves to the capital when the princess gets a little bit older, the story starts to drag and it loses momentum. It doesn’t feel necessary to spend as much time with all of Kaguya’s suitors, with the overall context feeling less interesting as a whole in comparison with the early stages in the forest environment. Throughout these periods, the character of Kaguya is front and centre and the film is essentially about her learning about what it means to be human and learning about the type of person she wants to be, as opposed to the person (or princess) others want her to be. There’s a strong lesson here and it builds to a strong conclusion that feels both melancholy and appropriate to the story.
The animation is beautifully hand drawn and minimalist with many scenes drawn in the broadest of strokes, and it works well for the story. It allows Takahata to colour in when appropriate to draw a character or a situation to the forefront of the screen, whilst reducing the other elements in any given scene, and this has a certain charm to it. The soundtrack complements the animation and the story well and features in small doses when the plot requires it. I saw the film in subtitled format (most cinemas in the UK will provide the choice of dubbed or subtitled) and I’d always recommend this format if possible to get full immersion in the material (albeit the Studio Ghibli films are always well dubbed by a strong English speaking cast).
Overall, ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’ is a solid, melancholy animated fairytale from Studio Ghibli, which similar to last year’s ‘The Wind Rises’, seems to reflect the themes of its director as he approaches the end of his career.
Directed By: Isao Takahata
Voiced By (Japanese Language): Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii, Nobuko Miyamoto, Atsuko Takahata, Tomoko Tabata, Tatekawa Shinosuke, Hikaru Ijuin, Ryudo Uzaki, Nakamura Shichinosuke II and Isao Hashizume