There was much discussion over the past year about the winding down of beloved Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli with its two founding fathers, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, hanging up their pencils. Both found fitting if unspectacular ways to bow out; first Miyazaki with the soaring The Wind Rises (2013) and now Takahata with the evocative fable The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Kaguyahime no monogatari, 2013). A melancholic swansong, it blends the director’s prior occupations and provides a perfect canvas for a final visual flourish. Taking watercolours as inspiration, the aesthetic is impressionistic and painterly with a fluidity that imbues the piece with an intrinsic magic.
The oldest of Japanese stories forms the framework, telling of a humble bamboo cutter (voiced by Takeo Chii) who one evening discovers a miniature, perfectly-formed princess growing in a gleaming shoot. Believing her to be a blessing from the heavens, the woodcutter takes her home and no sooner have he and his wife (Nobuko Miyamoto) decided to raise their little visitor as their own, than she has morphed into a human baby. Nicknamed ‘Princess’ by her doting parents and ‘Li’l Bamboo’ by her friends, Kaguya lives her childhood in a tranquil rural community – running, singing and laughing to her heart’s content. When the woodcutter one day happens upon gold and fine fabrics in a similar glowing bamboo, however, he divines that the family must move to the capital and give her a life fit for a princess.
Even in its earlier prosaic passages, Takahata’s farewell is saturated with nostalgia with the beautiful shimmering animation accentuating the original story’s roots. It’s like a Japanese children’s book has burst onto the screen, lovingly crafted and brimming with life from the characters to the plum blossoms overhead. This is especially evident in sequences of heightened emotion when the art work itself wavers and becomes all the more expressive. For the most part, however, the visuals stay clean and the ink within the lines, akin to the film’s narrative. Having enormously old source material does naturally mean that there will be an antique quality to the story, but one might hope for a little twist on this from a studio like Ghibli. Alas, although the heroine shows some admirable spunk when confronted with a stream of pompous suitors, there’s not quite enough going on to sustain the running time. Takahata is sure to broach Princess’ inner sadness early on in proceedings, but it never quite builds to a point at which it earns the potential tears of its climax. That is unless they’ve sprung at the recollection that The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a goodbye from Isao Takahata – and a graceful one it is.
This review was originally published on 6 September 2014 as part of our Toronto International Film Festival coverage.