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Film Review: The Tale Of Princess Kaguya

Eight years in the making, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli’s most recent and, potentially, final film. While the globally renowned Hayao Miyazaki is famous for his bold and bright stories which transport the audience to childlike fantasy lands, Takahata’s offerings are more delicate, thoughtful and notably melancholy. This continues to be the case with his newest offering.

The film wastes no time in delving into the curious story of a bamboo-cutter who finds a tiny princess. As a tale which dates back to the 10th century a Japanese viewer needs no introductions to the story, but the abrupt beginning might seem a little rushed for the western audience. However, as they observe the tiny girl transform into a baby and rapidly grow into a bright and charismatic young woman they will be eased into the story.
The bamboo-cutter and his wife raise the child in their humble mountain home. He is convinced it is her destiny to become a noble princess and they move to the capital, leaving the idyllic countryside behind. He is certain this life and finding a perfect husband is the key to the princess’ happiness, but instead she only yearns for her old mountain home.

Takahata doesn’t seek to impose a modern spin on this folktale. Even the aesthetics of the film are deeply reminiscent of 16th century Japan (when the story was first written down). The stylised animation is a marriage of anime and traditional watercolour paintings, the rigidity of the outlines shifting to match the protagonists’ emotions.

However, Takahata does make this story his own by inserting a strong environmental message into the storyline. Kaguya experiences, grows and loves in the countryside but in the city she is stunted and confined by their stifling customs. She is disgusted by the materialism that is rife in the people she finds there and would rather dance in the spring blossoms than be waited on by maids. If this is the life of a noble princess, she says, then “a noble princess isn’t human.”

Using a tale passed down through the centuries Takahata reminds a modern audience how necessary an existence which is at one with the natural world continues to be. This is a message which runs through many of Studio Ghibli’s films of the past thirty years and only becomes increasingly relevant.
This message is not a heavy handed subplot. The entirety of the tale is as delicate as its images; Takahata has beautifully introduced this timeless tale to a global audience. Not one for those seeking a happy-ending princess fairy tale but if you desire an enduring and moving piece of cinematic art, then look no further.

Written by Elizabeth Lee Reynolds


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