You may have heard the news that Studio Ghibli – the Japanese animation company behind some of the best movies of the past three decades (Princess Mononoke, Grave of the Fireflies, Spirited Away, etc) – is restructuring. Most of the founders stepping down. Will that make the most recent, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (released today), the swan song of Ghibli?
At the crossroads of journalism with fandom we often get a little too wrapped up in finalities and retrospectives. Regardless of business rumblings, the beloved films of Ghibli’s past will still be wonderful and a joy to share with others. Their newest one is The Tale of The Princess Kaguya and it is a fantastic movie — full of truths, wisdom and stunning animation — and it would be a fitting shutter on a distinguished era of animation. If it is. What is important is that regardless of what we think will happen to Ghibli, the tradition of making animated tales unlike anyone else — charcoal sweeps, watercolor, a 137-minute runtime — is in full bloom in this film.
Related: The Best Movie Ever: Studio Ghibli
Isao Takahata is 78-years old. He is a co-founder of Ghibli (with Hayao Miyazaki). Unlike Miyazaki, however, the 2000s have been very quiet for Takahata (director of Grave of the Fireflies). This is the only feature film that he’s made in this century. And Kaguya takes him back to work that he started on more than half a century ago, in 1959. Takahata was working for an animation studio that was mounting an adaptation of the classic Japanese fable “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” “Bamboo Cutter” tells the story of a man who discovers a tiny infant girl in a bamboo stalk. The girl grows up startlingly fast — full grown by age 5 — and the cutter takes her to the city to make her a princess, because he believes that’s what she is.
Takahata has shifted the focus from the bamboo cutter and properly titled the film The Tale of The Princess Kaguya. It’s a grounded and touching portrait of a girl who wants to be a girl and not a princess. Which — for an animation film — is certainly a shift.
Kaguya was born in nature, encased in a stem. Having male suitors for her at age five, because she’s grown so fast, should be kept in mind for more than ickiness’ sake. Because time moves much faster for Kaguya, she experiences what being a princess is like even younger: primping and classes that attempt to contain a wild spirit. And lines of men who hope that you will carry their children, when in fact, you’re still a child.
There is a reveal more than an hour through Kaguya that explains her quick growth and origin. Takahata smartly doesn’t include a prologue. Since the bamboo cutter knows nothing of her origin and Kaguya herself does not, it’s more daring — but natural — to tell the story from beginning to end, with no preamble about a curse or prophecy. Kaguya thinks she’s a young woman and so she is. Her film is billed as “the crime and punishment of a princess” but it’d be more accurately described as the crime and punishment of being a princess. Once the spirit-stifling process of princess-hood is revealed Kaguya does not want what young girls are taught to desire. One (of many) gorgeous animated sequences involves her running through a courtyard, tearing off all her fine fabrics and littering them in a line beneath the moon, as she tries to make her way back to the humble village where she was found.
About that run-time. Kaguya does get a little long. There might be a little too many twirling in nature scenes. But Kaguya is such a magnificent and identifiable character that it should hold the interest of children. Mysticism is introduced later, after all.
I cannot speak to the voice-work of the English version (Chloe Grace Moretz voices Kaguya, James Caan the bamboo cutter and Mary Steenburgen, his wife) because I saw a version with the (excellent) Japanese track with English subtitles. An aside: a part of me is curious about Caan’s ability to capture the sense of bafflement and wonderment that’s intrinsic to the bamboo cutter. In my brain I hear Caan with a Brooklyn accent. It feels like it’d be as out of place as Harvey Keitel pushing around Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. I mention this because I’d love for a reader to comment on the voice-work of the version being shown in theaters. This is a call to all!
Stepping back from my curiosity and back to my review: I fear I might be making Kaguya sound depressing. It is not. Takahata’s film is so alive. It spins in cherry blossoms. It feels the wind. It marvels at children and perfectly renders the baffled eyes when encountering new things such as frogs. But not all the immense wonder is applied just to Kagua. The “hillbilly” children of the village get those great gestures, too. And there are magnificently defined tears of joy from the bamboo cutter when little Kaguya comes to him while he chants “Princess” (as opposed to the walking to the villagers who chant “Lil Bamboo”). Importantly, the bamboo cutter is never rendered to be uncaring despite desiring her to be a princess. Fathers do not understand the punishment of being a princess. They think that’s what all little girls want, but what they really want is just to please their father.
Kaguya‘s great success is not only in the museum-quality animation, but in turning the princess fable onto its ear. Let it go. Let it go. Let it gooooooooooooo.