The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a vision. It might not seem a conventional vision but don’t doubt that’s what it is. Director Isao Takahata, the other genius behind Studio Ghibli, responsible for the delightful My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999) and the gutting Grave of the Fireflies (1988), has done something that perhaps no other major animation director has achieved in recent memory — a complete reinvention of the technique of animation.
If you’ve already seen the documentary Madman have been screening as part of the Studio Ghibli Showcase, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. During production of Yamadas over fourteen years ago, Takahata, seemingly bored with the normal way of doing things practically threw the studio into chaos in order to make the film he wanted to make it. Fourteen years later, finally convinced that he should make one more film, Ghibli give him his own production department in order to realise his dream (and minimise the Takahata effect).
Kaguya took five years to make, and the result is a story rendered in an astonishing palette of soft watercolour vistas and loose, expressive lines. If you know anything about animation, or painting for that matter (or you saw that aforementioned documentary), you’ll understand that this is the revolutionary part. Animators are trained to develop strong clean lines. Kaguya is rendered in what amounts technically to unfinished art, although it is finished, just not in the way that most animation is. Not only that, but watercolours apply in an immensely inconsistent way. Just contemplating the technical challenges the production team faced making this film not only makes it that much more special, but it might be enough to make some of you break out into a bit of a cold sweat.
Based on a folk tale where a poor bamboo cutter discovers a tiny girl inside a cut stalk and raises her as first his daughter and later a princess, the narrative is simple, bringing into focus the question of familial devotion versus material gain. Kaguya’s father is initially only doing what he feels is right for her — and Kaguya, devoted to her father as she is, goes along with him because that’s what he seems to want. But like any good coming of age story, Kaguya is still finding her way in the world, and eventually she discovers that what she wants and what her father wants for her are not the same thing. And of course, since she came from a bamboo stalk and grew to teenage-hood in something like a year, she’s definitely not of this world. And we all know what happens to people not from here; eventually they have to go back.
But this archetypal story is a good choice for Takahata’s stylistic vision — anything more complex might have detracted from the visual focus. Although that is hard to imagine. Kaguya’s realism is as charming as its more expressionistic moments are breathtaking. All the little details — the weighted movements of the characters, their expressions, the backgrounds, the way light plays through the scenes — all these things are typically Ghibli, but in Takahata’s hands they become just slightly more; not just magical but innovative.