The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the latest and purportedly last film from Studio Ghibli co-founder, Isao Takahata. (We’ll see if Takahata is better at following through on his retirement announcement than his partner Hayao Miyazaki has been.) The source of the story is a traditional Japanese folktale called “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. It concerns an old bamboo cutter who discovers a doll-sized little girl inside a bamboo cane. He takes the girl home to show his wife, and the girl turns into a baby before their eyes. They raise her as she grows with unnatural swiftness into a beautiful young woman. The bamboo cutter also find gold and luxurious kimonos inside bamboo canes, and with the gold he eventually purchases a mansion in the city. The beauty of Princess Kaguya, as the girl comes to be named, soon attracts wealthy and noble suitors.
This is an animated film, and it’s utterly gorgeous. Takahata uses a style here that emphasizes the line and the hand-drawn nature of the line. Backgrounds look like water color paintings. It often looks like traditional Japanese prints come alive. Sometimes it looks like crude sketches come alive. There’s a dream sequence in which Princess Kaguya’s anger seems to cause the world and herself to dissolve into furious scribbles. Something about Takahata’s approach here calls attention to the fact that this animation. As evocative as it is of the natural world, there’s nothing naturalistic about the visual style. Or maybe it’s just that it the simplicity of the look produces its own sense of naturalism.
Simplicity and closeness to nature are perhaps the main theme of the story. The first part of the movie is about the baby princess being raised in the rustic household of the bamboo cutter and his wife, befriending the kids of a nearby family, and exploring the natural world of the mountain forest they live in. The middle part moves Kaguya and her parents to an urban environment, where she gradually loses touch with the simple, natural life of the countryside. Eventually her true home calls to her, and she learns the value of the life that was lost when she moved to the city.
As a city boy myself, I found the critique of urban life and social rules less interesting than the more playful exaltation of nature. Not that there’s much wrong with the middle section, but it did seem to lag at times. The satire of court manners felt a little banal or unfocused, although the animation continued to be fantastic and the humor sweet. The characters are also strong throughout, although again perhaps the father’s obsession with social status felt a bit unmotivated.
But whatever qualms I felt about the middle section of the film, the final act overcame all doubts. For all that Takahata is showing us the value of simplicity, the story he’s telling is emotionally complex. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it spiritually complex. The finale takes us into a supernatural realm — the world of the gods — and it is completely serene and utterly devastating. It’s an acknowledgment of death and mortality — the natural end of all our stories, with the overwhelming sense of painful loss and awesome inevitability that comes with it. Mono no aware: the poignant transience of all things.
Watching The Tale of Princess Kaguya, I was struck again and again about how unlike other animated movies it is, other than Takahata’s own movies. Miyazaki does something equally powerful, but he’s stylistically completely different. Takahata has created a style of his own. Contemplating this final tale, a sense of mono no aware arises at the passing of a unique vision. We can be thankful that he shared it with us for a time.