Talking Movies: Isao Takahata’s ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Opening at FilmScene on Wednesday, Nov. 26

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is animator Isao Takahata’s first film in 14 years, and if you told me that he spent the last decade and a half working on this film, I might believe you.

The most immediately striking aspect of the film is its craftsmanship: the thick, uneven charcoal lines that outline the characters and the environment; the soft watercolors that are so atypical of popular animation; the mere fact that this is (by and large) a “traditionally” animated film, relying mostly on hand-drawn cells rather than on 3-D models.

Princes Kaguya sets its moving figures against backgrounds that are — with the exception of two or three simulated “camera movements” — entirely still. Spend some time letting your eye roam around the images (and I guarantee you will), and you’ll notice how details fade, things become less distinct, as the background recedes. It’s a beautiful, minimal effect that, while allowing the movement to look organic, never stops showing us the craft that went into making the film.

There’s potentially something distracting about such an aesthetic. But rather than being a mere assertion of handicraft, the thick lines and soft colors place the story in a dreamlike world, where nature and human invention are indistinct from one another. Kaguya is based on a medieval Japanese fable that seems, in part, to be an allegory along these very lines: How do we humans interpret and use the gifts of nature, and why do we put such a great distance between ourselves and nature?

Kaguya is also a story about parental love and dedication. In the film, a bamboo cutter discovers a thumb-sized princess inside a bamboo tree that sprouts suddenly as he is working in the forest. He brings the tiny woodland spirit home to his wife, and while they’re arguing over who gets to hold her, the princess quickly morphs into a wailing baby. The baby then becomes an exuberant, playful child in only days — what it feels like, as many parents will tell you, when you suddenly realize your baby is a quasi-articulate, quasi-independent being.

Later, when the toddler has become a little girl named Kaguya, the bamboo cutter is again at work in the forest and discovers nuggets of gold within a bamboo stalk. At first, he keeps this discovery secret from his wife and child, but a few days later, fine, feminine fabrics begin appearing from within the trees. The cutter excitedly brings the fabrics back to his wife, insisting that the fabrics and the gold are a sign from heaven that they should take their daughter “to the capital” and set her up as a princess. He is convinced that this is the best course for their daughter, and prevails upon his wife to make the move.

It’s the ambivalence of the “sign from heaven” that is the crux of the story. The sign does seem obvious enough, and the bamboo cutter is entirely convinced of it, but how can he know the intentions of heaven? What seems like a clear sign, a gift from nature intended for one particular purpose, may not actually be the best use of that gift. Certainly Kaguya chafes against the idea that she must move from her rural home to the new city and receive lessons in how to behave like a princess.

Surely this fable worked differently when it first appeared in Japan in the 10th century, but today it’s hard not to read the film as an alternative to the notions of princessness propounded by Studio Ghibli’s U.S. distributor, Disney. While in the original fable, Kaguya’s struggles with princess-lessons and her dreams of returning to the bucolic home of her childhood probably naturalized class and order, here it seems refreshing simply that the narrative is not based around Kaguya realizing that she has truly been a princess all along.

Sure, the peasant class here is “closer to nature,” an old-fashioned and problematic romanticism, but social class as a whole feels like a metaphor for something else. Kaguya, contra most female-centric Disney films, is less about the affirmation of its main character’s specialness (i.e., princessness) and more about the complexity of human life, situated somewhere between mystic nature and the societies we have built out of it.

As you may have gathered, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is probably the most ambitious animated film you’ll see this year. Dealing with issues from memory and the inexorable passing of time, to the miracle of human birth, life and death, it doesn’t offer much in the way of ribald humor or catchy pop tunes. (Its score, by the way, is excellent — as beautifully minimal and evocative as the animation.) And at 137 minutes, it’s far longer than you might expect of an animated film. But every moment is entirely hypnotizing, a stirring dream 14 years in the making.

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