Melancholy and magical, hand-drawn and head-spinningly confounding, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is a deceptively simple and devastating pinnacle of animation in the new millennium, a modern treasure laced with frank honesty, narrative depth, and timeless appeal. Gorgeous and glacially told, it’s an utter treat.
Found inside a glowing stalk of bamboo by an old bamboo cutter and his wife, a tiny girl grows rapidly into an alluring young lady. As she weaves baskets, plays tunes, and sings songs, the mysterious princess enthralls all who encounter her – receiving a half dozen marriage proposals from nobles large and small who are willing to move heaven and earth to be her groom – but ultimately she must confront her fate, the punishment for her crime.
The Tale of The Princess Kaguya comes from the other mad genius of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, who co-founded the company alongside Hayao Miyazaki in 1985 and is releasing his fifth feature fourteen years after 1999’s My Neighbors the Yamadas. This eerie, plaintive adaptation from 10th-century folklore is less sumptuous than maestro Miyazaki’s surreal classics (Spirited Away), yet it’s more affecting than many of them. It distills a millennium of Japanese storytelling into something ancient and contemporary, finding a peculiarly moving undertow of emotion in a venerable historical fable about a foundling country girl who can’t shake a sense of being out of place.
The film’s expressive style allows Takahata to submerge the audience in a world of beauty and yet maintain tight control over his canvas, heightening and blurring details at will. Taking Eastern watercolours as inspiration, the aesthetic is painterly with a fluidity that imbues the piece with intrinsic finesse. Exquisitely drawn with both freeform leanings and a brisk sense of line, it’s Cannes’ second film, after Mr. Turner, to communicate like a moving painting. Whimsically scored by Joe Hisashi (Princess Mononoke), the understated palette, soft tones, graceful movements, and delicate lines together embody the ineffable beauty of life on earth.
By abandoning realism for impressionist illustrations that bleed off the screen, Takahata manifests a more accurate reflection of the human experience. Kaguya’s afternoons are spent playing in overgrown forests of pale greens and yellows, the picture book brush strokes apparent by design as they amplify Kaguya’s innocence. When Kaguya overhears a group of men salivating over her beauty, she propels herself through the woods, and Takahata’s animation crackles and transfers Kaguya’s frustration into jagged black lines.
It’s an endlessly visionary tour de force, morphing from a playful gambol into a sophisticated allegory on the folly of materialism, the evanescence of beauty, and the irrecoverable joys of childhood. It seems to partake in pictorial minimalism, but discovers staggering possibilities for variation within its ineluctable modality.
It’s also the best kind of fairy tale – deep, tough, and meaningful, with a stalwart heroine who stays true to herself in spite of shallow temptations and is rewarded with a send-off worthy of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Ofelia. The final scenes are alive with sadness and the ecstasy of liberty, proving that not even gravity can defeat the sheer force of imagination. The pastoral quality of Takahata’s work lingers long past the ending.
The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is as good as mid-level Miyazaki (The Wind Rises): it’s brilliant animation, pure-hearted, genuine, strong, teeming with life and wonder and beauty. Studio Ghibli may never be the same without him, but neither has it lost its way.