Isao Takahata boasts a catalog so laudable that it seems strange to see him as any kind of “unsung” director, but given he spent so much of his career working alongside Hayao Miyazaki, it makes sense that he’d end up coming off as the quiet genius of Studio Ghibli. In contrast with Miyazaki’s universally appealing and often family-friendly films, Takahata directs stranger, more idiosyncratic productions, from the devastating Grave of the Fireflies to the nostalgic Only Yesterday, and even a passion project about a series of rural canals. So it remains with his final film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which was released close enough to Miyazaki’s own The Wind Rises to again be dwarfed in public consciousness. And yet, like so much of his work, Kaguya possesses an incredibly distinct beauty, and in its own way speaks to the rustic, nostalgic sensibilities that seem to unite Takahata and Miyazaki.
Kaguya is based on a tenth-century piece of Japanese folklore, the story of a bamboo cutter who finds a tiny princess in a stalk of bamboo. This princess grows quickly into a beautiful young woman, and blessed with the gold the bamboo cutter also retrieves from the forest, eventually moves to a gilded mansion in the capital. Though Takahata’s Kaguya longs for her home in the forest, her father can only comfort her with the wonders of wealth, and eventually presents her with five noble suitors. Kaguya sends each of these suitors on an impossible task, and after denying them all, eventually realizes she was sent to this world from the moon. She exchanges tearful goodbyes with her friends and loved ones, and then returns to the open sky.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya does not attempt to hide its old-fashioned origins. On the contrary, the film is animated as if it were a living Japanese painted scroll, its watercolor-esque backgrounds and distinctive character designs harkening back to 1600-1700 era classical art. The film’s lightly painted backgrounds are a marvel, and the rough linework of its character art melds perfectly with those backgrounds, creating an overall effect that feels like a living storybook. While modern anime on occasion try for an affected roughness of line art evoking a more painterly perception of character, such effects tend to demand a holism of visual execution that’s hard to achieve. Kaguya achieves this at all times, creating a visual world that feels utterly self-contained, truly alive, and successfully evocative of classic illustrated manuscripts.
The film’s subtle visual choices all contribute to its startling overall effect. While sequences like Kaguya spinning beneath the bows of a cherry tree stand out, smaller details like the precisely chosen character designs and minimalist backgrounds work hard to balance the illusion of classic illustration and the demands of drama and clarity. Kaguya herself is drawn in a style not too far distant from modern anime designs, allowing her a breadth of expressions that carries us emotionally through the film. Other characters are designed to emphasize their most endearing qualities, or to act as representatives of classic visual tropes. Lady Sagami performs such a dual function, designed to embody the ideal of a courtly lady, and through doing so offer another touchstone of Kaguya’s classic visual influences. Kaguya’s suitors verge on visions of onis, and their adventures even allow the film to sneak in a traditionally designed dragon.
Kaguya’s backgrounds also embody this negotiation of filmic convention and classic illustrated style. Scenes that take place in the hills and groves of Kaguya’s first home are richly layered in background detail, lending a sense of dramatic vitality and beauty to Kaguya’s early adventures. The constant refrain of “bugs, birds, and beasts” is echoed in the film’s visual priorities, regularly presenting us with beautifully animated inhabitants of this natural world. When Kaguya moves to the capital, the backgrounds begin to fade, simultaneously echoing her sense of isolation in this place while also directly evoking the often minimalist or non-existent backgrounds of classical Japanese art. An aesthetic convention solidifying the film’s old-fashioned look is thus spun to double as a thematic point, a type of clever layering present all throughout the film’s many thoughtful choices.
Kaguya’s slow pace allows us to fully engage with the strangeness and beauty of her world, while simultaneously lending a sense of congruity and dramatic majesty to the Bamboo Cutter’s fable-styled, nearly episodic narrative. The first thirty minutes of the film are dedicated to little beyond the wonder of parenting and the joy of exploring as a child. Kaguya’s careful animation means sequences like the princess learning to walk can exude comedy and drama without any dialogue, our emotional alignment with Kaguya’s parents secured purely through her clumsy and carefully captured struggles. By the time she leaves for the capitol, slight vignettes with the village boys and their leader Sutemaru have completely sold her love for this life, establishing an emotional need that will carry us all through the film. Takahata’s own love for the countryside is made clear in these moments, a love that both aligns and delineates him from fellow Ghibli titan Miyazaki.
It’s interesting to compare the ways each of these two men articulate their similar but very distinct passions and philosophies. Miyazaki’s love of nature is the harsh love of the martial environmentalist. He sees man’s conflict with nature as a war between the natural state of being and proud, often savage interlopers, a conflict that plays out across many of his films. Beyond possessing a stark and often intimidated beauty, nature is good because nature is right. We are outsiders in this world, and our trespasses will be forgiven only when our footprints have mossed over and been forgotten.
In contrast, Takahata’s view of the natural world seems to be one of fond coexistence, defined not by nature as it exists in the abstract, but by the experiences that tie us to the land we love. Kaguya’s forest world is beautiful for its own sake, but its beauty is something to be explored and enjoyed. Kaguya and her friends hunt pheasants, filch melons, and generally act like the small town scamps they are. Kaguya’s early segments thus felt to me most evocative of something like Dandelion Wine, a book dedicated to the magic of Ray Bradbury’s idealized small town childhood. Takahata’s exaltation of forest groves and dusty roads seems similar – the natural beauty of this world is wonderful, but so is the beauty of a mother dutifully sculpting bowls to sell, and the excitement of gathering mushrooms to make a tasty stew.
Kaguya’s portrait of a rural life worth fighting for also seems to directly echo Takahata’s earlier Only Yesterday. There, a woman named Taeko Okajima, who’s spent most her life working in the city, ends up busing out to the country, where she spends time harvesting in the fields and enjoying the forest air. The question of Taeko being a kind of lifestyle tourist is raised, but her true love for the country life is made clear all throughout the film, leading to a rapturous finale that merges her fond memories of childhood with her current appreciation for the rural world. Childhood is tethered to the rustic appeal of honest labor and open fields as tightly there as in Kaguya, leading this film to feel in some ways like a reinterpretation of his earlier classic.
Of course, Kaguya follows the form of its original fable, and thus while Only Yesterday took place in the time after Taeko had made her escape, Kaguya spends most of this film imprisoned in the customs of the city. The joys of Kaguya’s early home only briefly reach her here, embodied in a small shrine to nature in her mother’s garden, or the freedom of chasing a cat and letting fine silks dance in the air. Kaguya does not attempt to hide its heart; after all, the film’s most consistent motif is the bird in flight, echoing the princess’s true desires. And in its most aesthetically astonishing sequence, Kaguya literally becomes that bird, shedding the feathers of her finery to steal away into the forest, her form becoming a blur only distinguishable through the clear momentum of its movement, a fragment of motion too wild and unstable to ever be tamed.
Kaguya eventually returns to the moon, leaving behind her childhood friend and her clumsy father and her loving mother and her sturdy, ever-supportive handmaiden. The tale cannot escape its end, and though dramatic emphasis is newly balanced here, Princess Kaguya was always destined to fly back to her lonely home. But though Kaguya may not escape, though she must leave her forest heart behind, this film seems to find solace in her final tears, the last glance she spares for this strange world she’s loved. We may not always have the chance to embrace our nostalgic dreams, or to live in the world most close to our heart. But Takahata sees a hope for all of us in the princess’s enduring memories. If even this goddess of the moon, destined to forget her days spent gaily in the forest, can shrug the yoke of forgetting, there is a chance the rest of us might do the same. Whatever our treasured home may be, if we cry for it still, it is not yet truly gone. Our home resides in all of us, as enduring and unsullied as that child laughing in the moon.
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