The Extraordinary Achievement of ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’

To witness Takahata’s decade old project seems almost like a blessing unto itself. The charcoal strokes and painted brushes of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya wash over you and immerse you into a startlingly different world where the magic of fantasy is sharply balanced by the difficulties and sufferings of a life on earth, where the wondrous is often undercut by stark, cold reality. It is a strangely harsh film, where the title character of Kaguya is a miracle on earth that has to deal with her own, very human problems, which turn her from an excited child to a world weary adult. As opposed to his Studio Ghibli counterpart, Hayao Miyazaki, Takahata has a history of using the brilliant and often hopeful world of animation to create a bleaker world, as shown in his previous films like Only Yesterday and most famously, Grave of the Fireflies. The end result is no different here, as a simple fable about a girl born from a bamboo shoot quickly turns into a thought-provoking and moving drama about the cold reality of growing up as part of royalty.

However, she doesn’t begin as royalty. Born out of a bamboo shoot and falling into the hands of an amazed bamboo cutter, Kaguya quickly grows up around the beautiful nature of the countryside, making friends and singing songs around the idyllic surroundings of her childhood. Soon however, her father begins to receive new gifts through the bamboo stalks, such as clothes of silk and piles of gold, leading him to believe (correctly or incorrectly) that she needs, deserves, to grow up as royalty, or otherwise she will not be truly happy. So begins a sad and memorable warning of royal life, as Kaguya finds her beauty hidden and her passions denied in order to become the quiet, reserved idea of the Japanese royal woman. It is just as adult and serious theme that any Studio Ghibli film has ever tackled, up there with the horrors of war in Grave of the Fireflies and the means to create weapons in the name of beauty as shown in The Wind Rises. With the unusual but absolutely engrossing style of animation on display, charcoal paints and bright colours, along with juxtaposition between soft and jagged environments makes it a truly unique film on a visual level, totally unlike anything that Studio Ghibli has attempted before. Although it does, to an extent, unfairly romanticise the life of living in the countryside, the beautiful pink strokes of the cherry blossom and the waves of green trees stretching around Kaguya’s house makes it easy to understand why she loves it so much, and how the transition of that to an empty, grey mansion would bring her into a state of near-depression. The two worlds’ are best contrasted in an absolutely extraordinary sequence in which Kaguya, having over-heard horrific remarks about her by guests at a ceremony, runs out into the night, tossing her bright clothes of royalty behind her as she goes. The style of animation immediately becomes rushed and jagged, with a shaky moon hovering above her figure as she races through the ragged, pitch black shapes of the woods, back home to where it all began. It is, potentially, one of the most powerful and jaw-dropping moments of animated cinema I have ever seen; an unprecedented burst of violent emotion, where Kaguya’s sadness and anger is projected onto the world around her, turning it sour and sharp.

Although The Tale of the Princess Kaguya excels in these kind of moments, where the world becomes violent around Kaguya, the film also shines in its quiet, thoughtful moments too. Early on there is a moment much talked about by critics, where Kaguya learns how to crawl, and then to walk, by mimicking frogs around her house. It is a beautiful, serenely joyous few minutes as she imitates their sound, and then their motions before finally discovering how to use her own legs properly, and is a scene rightly admired and beloved by anybody who watches it. However, the scene that sticks in my mind as being both quiet and powerful is much later on, where Kaguya’s mother allows her to escape the mansion for an afternoon to visit a cherry blossom tree in the countryside. Kaguya runs up to the tree, once again at one with nature, and we get a lovely and colourful moment of her dancing amidst the falling petals and around the luscious green grass of the hill. This is interrupted by country folk who accidentally bump into her oblivious dancing form, and treat her like the princess she hates to be, apologising for their mere presence and quickly move away, leaving her alone again on the hill. As she watches them go she sees the children playing along the path and through the trees, just like she used to do, and what was a moment of pure ecstacy soon turns into a deeply personal, important, and sad moment in her life. Despite coming back to the beauty and wonder of the countryside once again, it is clear that her now royal figure is completely out of sorts with the world that she loves. She is part of the rich elite that is now trying to reconnect with the poor surroundings that shaped and sharpened her looks and personality, and in that one moment of apology, she has to face up to the idea that she is no longer part of it. It’s a heartbreaking scene, one which changes emotions like flipping a coin, and gives a real insight into this tragic character in a way that words never could.

This will be Takahata’s last film, and after Miyazaki officially retired last year, the end of Studio Ghibli is looking scarily like a very real possibility. Although The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is now at least two years old, I felt completely compelled to write about it in its entirely, as I fear I may not get a real chance to do so again. I was taught and embraced by the world of Studio Ghibli when I first started loving cinema; they taught me about the possibilities of animation, the beauty of imagination and the pure joy that can come from simple images. It saddens me that this education may have finally ended with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, but it is as good a farewell as anything I could have hoped for. Like Miyazaki’s emotional farewell, The Wind Rises, this is a deeply personal, more adult endeavour, which still manages to highlight everything that I have loved about their time working in the medium. It is beautiful and heartbreaking, and in true Studio Ghibli fashion it is not only a true and heartfelt story of growing up and facing reality, but it is also a magical dip into the genre of real fantasy. It shouldn’t mean much for me to say that I loved The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, or even that I adored it; I pretty much profess my love for any Studio Ghibli effort, even missteps like Pom Poko and From Up on Poppy Hill. I think it means a lot more for me to suggest, or even predict, that in time this will be seen as one of the greatest achievements in the history of animation, a fitting masterpiece to potentially pull the curtain down on the best animation studio that has ever worked in cinema. This is a once in a lifetime kind of film; unbelievably, Studio Ghibli have given us a lifetime full of them.