Me Ol' Bamboo
The announcement that the beloved (for once the word is entirely apposite) Japanese production house Studio Ghibli would be taking a short break from producing movies was, predictably, greeted with yelps of concern from Ghibli's legions of fans. I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't some yelping from the proprietors of art-house cinemas and dedicated movie-only TV channels, too, for there seem to be few more reliable propositions than a Ghibli revival or a season.
Nevertheless, with the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, the brief (or not so brief, who can say?) hiatus is almost upon us, with the studio's last couple of full-length releases reaching the UK. The tendency is to treat Ghibli as something of a one-man – or one-family – operation, but other directors have always worked for the company, most prominently Isao Takahata, and it's Takahata's The Tale of the Princess Kaguya which is currently on release.
Takahata's most famous film is probably the extraordinary full-throttle gloom-fest Grave of the Fireflies, and anyone familiar with that might be forgiven for approaching his other work with a degree of trepidation. However, Princess Kaguya is a rather more traditional piece of story-telling, based on a well-known Japanese folktale.
It concerns an elderly bamboo-cutter who one day comes across a strange light emerging from a bamboo shoot. Investigating, he finds within a tiny girl in the robes of a princess, whom he naturally takes home to show his wife. The girl transforms into a rather more conventional infant, whom the couple decide to raise as their own, believing the strange circumstances of her discovery are a sign of the fate which the powers of heaven intend her to have.
The rapidly-growing girl makes friends among the local children, but soon enough she and her parents must move to the capital, where her education as a lady of substance begins. Her remarkable beauty and rumours of her other qualities soon leads to interest from the highest echelons of society, but – regardless of what heaven wants for Princess Kaguya – is it what she really wants for herself?
'Distinctive' is usually an understatement when it comes to a Ghibli movie: I always find it hard to review any of them without near-automatic recourse to words like 'charming', 'meticulous' and 'breathtakingly beautiful'. Even within the canon, however, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is something a bit different – simply in terms of its sheer look. The whole film has a soft, almost hand-drawn look to it, as though it's been made with either water-colours or pastels rather than more traditional methods of animation. I've never seen this approach used before on a long-form project, and it perhaps results in a slightly more stylised film, but it's also one which is gorgeous to look at and very memorable.
Based as it is on a traditional story, the script for this movie doesn't have the feel of having been written using a spreadsheet, as is sometimes the case with modern American animations. There is the usual Ghibli quirkiness, not to mention a few charmingly grotesque character designs, built into the film, and the whole thing has a flavour – and a few plot developments – that I can't imagine any other production company having the confidence to take on.
The story has a somewhat episodic feel, opening with numerous sequences concerning Kaguya's idyllic rural childhood, before covering her education in the big city and the antics of various suitors, before finally reaching a somewhat unexpected, but nevertheless deeply moving climax. I should mention that the overall tone is gently comic and perhaps a little sentimental, but – spoiler alert – no-one protractedly starves to death, and the guiding imperative of the film seems to be to entertain the audience rather than plunge them into a slough of despair.
Instead, the film deals subtly and gracefully with a number of classic themes, many of them the stuff of numerous folk tales, others more universal. Partly it is about the contrast between the carefree pleasures of childhood and the greater responsibilities of adult life, partly it is about regret and nostalgia, but it is also about what it means to live a good life – is it social and financial success, as Kaguya's father seems to think? Or is it more about self-expression and emotional fulfilment? Running throughout all of this is a profound interest in the relationship between human society and the natural world, and the importance of living in harmony with the rhythms of nature. There is, as you can perhaps see, a lot going on here, but the film never feels overly busy or pretentious.
It is, in short, an extremely distinctive and accomplished film even by the soaringly high standards of the Ghibli marque, although it is such a departure from the style of the various Miyazaki films that I can't imagine it instantly being universally adopted by every single devotee of the studio. It is the result of a singular artistic vision, with no sign of any compromise being made, and one executed to the highest of levels. Even if the film's somewhat reserved and distinctive style makes it a little difficult to fully embrace, it is impossible not to admire and be impressed by it on almost every level.