Based on a 10th Century Japanese folklore story called The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya is the 2013 swansong movie from critically acclaimed director Isao Takahata before his sad passing in 2018 at the age of 82. To date in 2020 it remains the most expensive Japanese movie ever made.
With a stunningly beautiful watercolour style animation, sumptuous traditional Japanese score, and a story about the loss of innocence through depression to acceptance, it’s easy to see why The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar.
A rural bamboo cutter drawn by a magical light discovers a thumb sized princess emerging from a bamboo stalk. He takes his discovery to his wife, but before their very eyes the princess grows into a baby. They resolve to look after her even as she continues to grow at supernatural speed, shooting past milestones at an extraordinary rate with local kids who dub her ‘Lil’ Bamboo’ for her growing speed. But the bamboo cutter discovers more stalks which overflow with gold pieces, and resolves to provide his adoptive daughter with a royal life in the capital.
Takahata quickly fills you with wonder and not just at the magical elements. Much of the opening 20 minutes of the movie is spent enjoying the rapid growth of Princess (later named Kaguya by royal decree) as she tumbles about the place rolling, crawling, toddling, then walking.
The animators must have studied babies thoroughly to capture such natural movements! Rural Japan is drawn as lush with fruits and vegetation, more than meeting the needs of a simple farming community. There is as much joy in Princess and her friends chasing down a pheasant or thieving a ripe melon as there is in exploring the dense bamboo forest.
Yet it isn’t long before things begin to change. Princess’ well-meaning adoptive father decides he wants a richer life for her, and using his mysteriously acquired gold he pays for them all to live a life of rich nobles.
By contrasting the wild carefree ways of Princess Kaguya with the strict societal norms she is now expected to adhere to, Takahata gets to poke fun at high class protocol. “A lady does not sweat,” says her exasperated manners teacher, following with, “A lady does not laugh.” “If a lady does not sweat or laugh, then she is not human!” snorts Kaguya in response. But this constant expectation slowly grinds Kaguya down. Come the end of the second act, the exuberant young woman we once knew is barely there.
The movie took a long time and a lot of money to make and it is immediately apparent as to why. Such a watercolour effect is very difficult to animate and it speaks to Takahata’s commitment that the movie was completed at all.
The end result is a highly unusual and gorgeously rendered masterpiece that evokes the look and feel of feudal Japan by imitating genuine artwork from the time. Such an art style allows for occasional delving into fantasy where you question what is real. One extraordinary sequence sees a morose Kaguya burst from her home in anger as the animation switches from gentle colours to severe and harsh black lines, as if charcoal pens were slashing at the screen.
The Tale of The Princess Kaguya as a piece of work is just as much art as it is a movie. It is crafted with such care and love that the effort shines out from the screen and with an emotionally charged ending it will linger in your memory long after the credits roll.
Like many Takahata movies it works on many levels as he once again weaves in an element of environmentalism (the obligatory little speech about sustainable farming) but unlike some of his earlier works, Kaguya doesn’t stray focus from its lead character. Isao Takahata may have been taken from this world sooner than we wanted, but in The Tale of The Princess Kaguya his legacy is a joy to admire.