Renowned Japanese film director Isao Takahata’s latest and perhaps final film “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” finally arrived in Utah last Friday.
Though not as celebrated as his esteemed colleague and Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, 79-year-old Takahata brings rare visionary talent to the film, a retelling and reconstruction of Japan’s oldest folktale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.”
The film begins as another day in the life of an old bamboo cutter bringing in stalks for his livelihood, when he discovers a tiny girl inside a stalk of bamboo. Bringing her home, the bamboo cutter and his wife raise the rapidly growing girl as their own.
When the bamboo cutter discovers gold and silks the same way he found his adopted daughter, he sees it as a sign from heaven that his young “princess” is destined for royalty. Using the gold, they move to the capital and take steps to establish their daughter in noble society.
In the girl’s naming ceremony, she receives the formal name Kaguya for her radiant beauty.
True to it’s origins, “Kaguya” is animated in a style reminiscent of traditional watercolor paintings and charcoal drawings, as opposed to the fine lines and realistic coloring of typical Japanese animated films.
This move gives the film a transitory look, and gives many scenes an interesting, but not altogether unwelcome, appearance. Lines fade out near the edges, and backgrounds are only half colored in. Scenes of great motion throw many lines colliding onscreen in a seemingly haphazard fashion.
In spite of, or perhaps because of this, each shot of the film does not fail to be less than beautiful. These stylistic departures show clear, deliberate choices made by a veteran animator.
Though a faithful retelling of the folktale, the film’s narrative reflects on the meaning of happiness, and shows it to be a transitory, imperfect state of being on Earth. This is contrasted with the perfection found in the heavenly realms, and the film definitely prizes the former over the sterility of the latter.
Kaguya, though adept at the courtly manners impressed upon her by her tutors, longs for the simple country life she had as a girl, and struggles against others’ attempts to bring her happiness in their, but not her, way.
In this the film finds its greatest strength, portraying the very human emotions Kaguya experiences, running the gamut of joy, sadness, longing and fear through her eyes. Easy morals or lessons, so common in folktales and fables, are nowhere to be found.
The film also does not end in marriage, unlike many other “princess” films. In fact, Kaguya struggles through the entire film against simply marrying off to any of her numerous suitors, much to the chagrin of her adopted father.
The film’s narrative emphasizes this dramatic struggle, but also features many lighthearted moments of true comedy.
Though director Takahata does not bring as much a sense of wonder to the screen, he masterfully executes a slow build of emotional weight to the tale, climaxing in a surprise tragedy by the end. This is a film that languishes in the character Kaguya and her life. It takes its time and benefits richly from that investment.
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is many things. Perhaps most simply, it is beautiful.
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is rated PG, and runs 137 minutes. It is currently showing at Broadway Centre Cinemas at 111 E. Broadway in Salt Lake City. Noon and 3 p.m. showings are in English; 7 p.m. showings are in Japanese with English subtitles.