Much was made of animation legend Hayao Miyazaki’s decision to retire last year, but a new movie out today from his Studio Ghibli comes from the mind of no less great a talent. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was directed by 78-year-old Isao Takahata, a co-founder of the studio, and you won’t see a lusher, more gorgeous movie in 2014.
Princess Kaguya is based on a 10th-century Japanese folk story called The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, which tells of a poor couple that discover a mystical girl in a forest and take it upon themselves to raise her as a princess. Takahata takes this narrative and runs with it, exploring the transient nature of life, the shallowness of wealth and materialism, and the absurdity of societal roles along the way. But Princess Kaguya’s plot is a simple one at first — most viewers will be more immediately grabbed by the astonishing art style.
Princess Kaguya is like an old Japanese painting come to life. The fluid animation is drawn in minimalist, evocative watercolors with charcoal strokes that reminded me a little of the Raymond Briggs adaptation The Snowman. A core theme of the film — how a simple life spent among nature can offer more happiness than urbanity and purported social progression — is one shared by other Ghibli works, but the painterly style helps make a more convincing case here. In one amazing scene, the princess Kaguya’s angry fantasies of escaping an oppressive environment are shown in dizzying, coarse scrawls as the character takes flight.
The innovative artwork is typical of Takahata’s Studio Ghibli filmography, which has often reset expectations of what anime can look like. 1999 comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas, for example, wrings expressive, relatable characters out of crude sketches that portray family life. And a personal favorite, 1991’s Only Yesterday, is rendered in two separate styles. The present day events feature vibrant colors and realistic animation, with the muscles in characters’ faces visibly shifting between emotions. The childhood memories of the protagonist, Taeko, on the other hand, take on a style more like conventional kids’ animation, only with washed-out colors and unfinished backgrounds that emphasize the fuzzy nature of recollections. As Taeko matures in the past, her memories are gradually drawn in a style closer to the present.
Princess Kaguya’s art and source material make it one of the most conspicuously Japanese films that Studio Ghibli has ever put out. But for its US release, the voice cast includes American actors like Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, and Lucy Liu. While Ghibli films often feature respectable English dubbing, I haven’t had a chance to see that version for myself. I do feel, though, that if there’s any Ghibli film that would work better in Japanese with subtitles — no matter your personal preference — it’s probably this one.
Princess Kaguya’s straightforward plot perhaps doesn’t quite justify its two hours and 17 minutes running time, and viewers unfamiliar with the original story might be thrown sideways by a cosmic twist in the third act. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is often described as proto-science fiction, making Princess Kaguya more than your average Japanese folk tale. And despite some strong scenes, I didn’t find it quite as moving or emotional overall as some of Takahata’s best work, which often has the power to massage your heart and punch you in the gut all at once. But I never felt that Princess Kaguya dragged — even at its slowest, the film is never less than stunning, and it’s hard not to be swept away by its charms.
Before it got delayed, Princess Kaguya was meant to see release alongside Miyazaki’s swansong The Wind Rises as a double feature last year. Ghibli also did this back in 1988, when Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro — one of the best-loved, most adorable Japanese movies of all time — shared the billing with Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, a harrowing, powerful tale of two children clutching onto survival after a World War II bombing campaign leaves.
That Takahata’s work is often held up next to Miyazaki’s, despite drastic divergences in style and tone, is testament to the diversity of Ghibli’s work and the talent of its two biggest names. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya might be the last chance to see a new Takahata film as it comes out in cinemas; I would say it’s a chance not to be missed.