Isao Takahata is well known as the second pillar of Studio Ghibli alongside Hayao Miyazaki (they are co-founders of the studio, in fact) and with perhaps his last film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, he has produced a work of stunning, simplistic beauty.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is based on an old Japanese folk tale (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter). One afternoon, a modest bamboo cutter, Miyatsuko, discovers an iridescent bamboo stalk containing a miniature, doll-like girl. Miyatsuko takes the girl back home to his wife and to their surprise she transforms into a baby.
They raise Princess (the local children call her Little Bamboo due to her propensity for rapid ageing) as their own kin and after finding gold and fine silk in another bamboo stalk, Miyatsuko is convinced that Princess must be taken to the capital to become a noblewoman, adopting the name Princess Kaguya.
Kaguya is an irrepressible spirit plucked from the quiet of the countryside and paraded in front of eligible bachelors in her new mansion. This stifling way of life culminates in a spectacular sequence that will go down as one of Studio Ghibli’s finest moments. Kaguya decides to run from her naming ceremony; the pencil visuals becoming sketchier, more expressionist with every stride, the strokes more pronounced, the shapes of the environment distorting as eloper and surroundings collide.
The story itself is beautifully told but when it is complemented by an art style such as the one found here it propels it to cinema of the highest tier. It’s a world of delicate brushstrokes – everything looks like a charcoal painting brought to life, yet the animation is so fluid and meticulous that everything still manages to possess a sense of weight and texture. Stop The Tale of Princess Kaguya at any moment and you have an image worthy of being framed and hung on a wall.
This is never more apparent than during the early baby sequences. The care and attention to detail in the animation make it one of the most touching, realistic portrayals of infancy I have ever seen. The musical score somehow manages to match the visuals every step of the way.
Only a slight lull in the middle section and some stilted expository dialogue threaten to dampen proceedings.
Isao Takahata traditionally takes a while to make films – this being his first in 14-years – but it was worth the wait. If this really is to be Takahata’s swansong he has gone out in a blaze of glory. (9)