Momentarily one becomes overwhelmed by warm and comforting sentiments as the well-known mascot Totoro floods the screen pre-empting the unique creation that is Studio Ghibli. The magic, the cuteness, the message – Japanese director Isao Takahata gives us yet another touching story, The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Last year it seemed the Studio was in flux as Hayao Miyazaki finally announced his retirement after final piece The Wind Rises, albeit the latest project to emerge proves that Ghibli is still very much full of life.
Considering Takahata, the man behind the incredibly moving The Grave of the Fireflies (1988), it is near impossible to ignore the underlying thought that this tale may have a hidden agenda. What emerges is a childlike, playful story with an inescapably tragic coming of age plot-line. Based on 10th Century folklore, ‘The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter’, we observe an elderly couple as they take care of a little princess whom they find hidden away inside a shining bamboo stalk. Nicknamed ‘Takenoko’ (Little Bamboo) this precious gift granted to them grows at an inhuman rate and has a connection with nature that is so innocently adorable. Whilst her adopted mother happily provides a life full of affection, her father visualises the grandeur of a palace fit for his little Princess. Initially, Kaguya is thrilled with her new city home but excitement wears thin after enduring relentless lessons in etiquette, koto playing and traditional Heian garb in order to prepare for a worthy companion. This originally light-hearted plot transforms into a cautionary message signifying the sheer pressure posed on young adults – and particular women – within society.
The abstract animation style established here doesn’t quite have the same finished sheen that the Studio usually adopts. Reminiscent of My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999) the concoction of a pastel, water-coloured palette and fine pencil etchings add an abundance of layers to this fabulous cinematic animation. Smooth, flowing moments represent grace in an otherwise chaotic world these characters reside in. Emotions run deep, so much so that at times all we see is a spiralling whirl of charcoaled sketches and fast moving frames representing the characters inner turmoil. Although laced with enough humorous and delightful moments, a distinct sense of eeriness consumes the screen as the devastating resolution reveals itself. Like Takahata’s Pom Poko, this is much more philosophical and spiritual approach grounded by realism verses the trademark fantasy Miyazaki relished in. Joe Hisaishi’s (Ponyo, Spirited Away) incredibly serene score incorporates seamlessly with this melancholic and lurid situation this family finds themselves in.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a touching tale alongside some breathtakingly beautiful animation. Takahata presents us with a deeply sad story of love and loss; however this is not without enduring moments of laughter. A visual splendour that is well worth the tears you’ll shed whilst watching.