A bamboo cutter find a tiny nymph inside a plant stalk. The child grows at a rapid rate into a beautiful young woman, desired by many. The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is the latest offering from Studio Ghibli. This is rumored to be Director Isao Takahata‘s swan song who hasn’t directed a film since 1999’s My Neighbors the Yamadas. You’re forgiven if you don’t remember that one. He co-founded the legendary Japanese animation house with long-time collaborative partner Hayao Miyazaki. Savvy moviegoers will likewise remember Miyazaki’s farewell The Wind Rises.
The animation is unlike the majority of what is being produced today. The look is reminiscent of the delicate approach of pre-war Japanese watercolor artists. Hand drawn minimalist style – read unfinished – recalls the preliminary sketch cartoons that Disney commissions before making the actual feature. You know the ones. They’re often featured in the DVD extras in those behind-the-scenes featurettes. It is steadfastly old fashioned when compared with the cartoons of today. In fact the visuals have a traditional quality that make linking it to our contemporary times seem like an anachronism. Takahata certainly doesn’t rely on comic relief either. The saga is taken from an ancient Japanese text so it makes the timeless design most appropriate. The story’s seeming existence in another time and place is one of its most positive attributes.
There is a magical credibility to the drama which is based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a Japanese fable. Princess Kaguya has moments of genuine poignancy. There are also long stretches where the languid narrative is simply allowed to rest. There’s something admirable about an account that is unconcerned by time. It’s akin to watching the undulating ripples of a pond. If gazing at the quiet beauty of nature can captivate you for 2 ½ hours this will surely enchant your senses.
The chronicle is a legend full of fanciful flourishes that myths are known to have. Princess Kaguya is a mysterious protagonist compete with a secret back-story like the heroine of any good yarn. However she isn’t a particularly warm person. When her childhood friend Sutemaru is beaten in front of her, she does nothing to help him. She gives would-be suitors false hope by demanding they fetch items to court her favor. The kicker is she has no interest in any of these men to begin with, so her requests are for impossible to get items. One even dies in the process. At least Kaguya gets depressed about it. At first she seems to praise the simple value of her previous country life over her more exalted existence in the big city, but then the fantastical ending kind of throws that idea out the window. Fairy tales always have a moral and I’m sure this one is no exception. I just have no idea what that is given the bizarre resolution. I still enjoyed The Tale of The Princess Kaguya. It’s different and that’s saying something in today’s cookie cutter world.