Review: The Tale of The Princess Kaguya

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Studio Ghibli's final UK release is a masterpiece of animation, a daintily beautiful rendition of a traditional Japanese folktale.

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Studio Ghibli’s most renowned director Hayao Miyazaki’s final animated feature, The Wind Rises, was distributed in the UK last May following its 2013 Japanese release. A typically beautiful piece of filmmaking, it won awards all over the world and was deservedly nominated for both an Academy award for ‘Best Animated Feature’ and a Golden Globe for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’. But with Miyazaki’s departure, all film production has halted and the future looks uncertain for the acclaimed and beloved anime studio. Softly laying in The Wind Rise’s soaring shadow however, was The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, directed in the same year by fellow founding member and second in line to the Ghibli throne, Isao Takahata, known for creating some of the studio’s more affecting films such as 1988’s harrowingly beautiful Grave of the Fireflies.

Princess Kaguya is based on ‘The Bamboo Cutter’s Tale’, a Japanese fable in which a tiny princess from the moon (naturally) is found in a bamboo shoot by a woodsman and his wife. As the princess grows she is moved from the natural environment of the forest to the capital where she must live as nobility, courted by the country’s most eligible bachelors and the emperor himself. In the city she finds her natural vitality stemmed and faded and herself alienated by the selfish expectations of her adoptive father and high society.

The animation of the film is in a style previously unexplored by the studio, its sketchy style is reminiscent of traditional Japanese art. Every moment could be a watercolour painting – especially effective in its depiction of nature. The true mastery of Studio Ghibli’s animation has always been their captivity of movement. Every step taken is steeped in character and this storybook style fills it with possibly more charm and understanding than ever before. The traditional Japan is reflected in the music as well. Composer Joe Hisaishi’s sparse score wields traditional instruments such as the twanging koto, the lupine call of the shakuhachi flute and the kaito drum in its perfectly atmospheric accompaniment to the visuals; minimal and placid one second, crashing and powerful the next, like a performance of Kabuki or Noh theatre.

Thematically, Princess Kaguya could perfectly underscore the Ghibli discourse. It deals with issues both Takahata and Miyazaki have frequently addressed in their past films: The Japanese father-daughter relationship (see Takahata’s Only Yesterday for the most poignant example) and the studio’s most invested theme – man’s interaction with nature, rural versus urban and the search for balanced coexistence.

Finally distributed in the UK now two years after its original Japanese release, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is a thing of delicate but powerful beauty. Behind the charm of its fairy tale plot there is great depth and meaning, with symbiotic visuals and audio that are, at times, breathtakingly emotive. The film’s ending reflects a reluctant conclusion to the Studio Ghibli story, but, if all things must end, this movie is an achievement certainly worthy of underlining such a triumphant body of work.

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, directed by Isao Takahata, is distributed in the UK by Studio Canal, Certificate U.

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