Isao Takahata is Studio Ghibli’s dark horse, living proof that there’s more to it than Hayao Miyazaki. Although Ghibli and Miyazaki are often treated as synonymous, it’s difficult to overstate Takahata’s importance to the studio. He was one of its cofounders and directed the often-misunderstood masterpiece, Grave of the Fireflies. He also collaborated with Miyazaki on many of his films, such as Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, reigning Miyazaki in when his creative vision exceeded what could reasonably be contained in a feature film. I believe that Takahata’s absence can be felt on many of Miyazaki’s more recent films, which often lack the narrative unity that was present earlier in his career.
Takahata’s works are also more rooted in specifically Japanese folk stories and historical events than Miyazaki’s. While the Shinto-inspired spirit creatures from Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro can be approached through a more general conception of animism, it takes another level of familiarity to not be put off by Pom Poko’s tanuki, or shape-shifting trickster raccoons that Takahata takes care to draw with their characteristic enlarged scrotums. These are a few reasons why Takahata might be less well known in the West.
Along these lines, I have a theory that The Legend of Princess Kaguya plays off more cohesively for Japanese audiences. Much of its narrative coherence comes from familiarity with Japanese folk tale its based on, titled The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The tale starts out seeming like a Japanese counterpart to Thumbelina, but takes a sudden left turn into the unexpected when it is revealed that the main character, Kaguya-hime (who was born from a stalk of bamboo and raised by a humble woodcutter), is actually a banished being from a civilization on the moon. Once the Emperor himself takes interest in Kaguya, the Tale of Genji-esque Heian-era Court drama becomes too much for her and she calls for the moon people to pick her up. It’s an interesting tale — equal parts rote fairy tale and bizarre, anachronistic science fiction — and worth reading on its own.
As a Western person interpreting what seems to me like an intensely Japanese work, the reading that I latched onto for The Tale of Princess Kaguya is that it’s an interesting thematic inverse of the typical Western princess story. This type of story, popularized in film through Disney, typically features a young woman who gains satisfaction through marriage and entrance into aristocratic life. Kaguya’s trajectory and value system, however, is close to the exact opposite of this. Kaguya is most content in her default state living as a peasant in close proximity to nature. Romantic entanglements with princes are sites of danger because they lead to the suppression of Kaguya’s inner being. The film’s point of no return — when the tragic ending becomes inevitable — is when the Emperor tries to physically sequester her as his concubine. Kaguya is so traumatized by this moment that she calls to the moon to save her, and no matter how much she tries to take back this wish later on, it turns out to be unretractable. She returns to the moon unwillingly, forever parting from her parents and the Earth she loves. In this way, the drive towards upward mobility (imposed by her loving but ultimately destructive father) is a blow from which she never recovers.
Overall, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Takahata’s first film in 10 years, is as gorgeous as it is frustrating. Its beauty consists of discrete sequences that don’t tie together into a consistent narrative whole, although some of its momentary thematic implications are tantalizing. It’s a film of parts, tonally and narratively disjointed, but in a way that feels like the structural adaptation from folk tale to the silver screen wasn’t entirely completed.
It’s too long, for one — clocking in at 137 minutes, it’s Ghibli’s longest movie, beating out even Miyazaki’s epics, Princess Mononoke and The Wind Rises. There is no reason for this. While its length never becomes oppressive, sections could easily be trimmed to make the film more cohesive and less repetitive. It feels a few drafts short of a completed script throughout — some parts lag, others are cut short, and it’s just so obviously delineated into three tonally distinct sections. Not that any section is bad, they’re each just compelling for completely different reasons and don’t gel very well with each other. The first section, about Kaguya’s childhood, is something like pastoral pastiche, the second a series of anecdotes about her ascendency to and struggles within the upper class, the third reflection and tragedy.
Otherwise, this film is so beautiful that it’s almost difficult to describe. Visually, it’s dominated by motion and color. The lineart seems to have been done in charcoal while the backgrounds are watercolor. Kaguya herself is a being of pure motion. Her identity is deeply tied to how she moves, so her conformity to the aristocratic ideal takes the form of repressed motion – she becomes like a taut bowstring, and when her rebellion releases that she turns into a gust of form and color.
Overall, The Legend of Princess Kaguya is less than the sum of its parts. It’s a beautiful film that deserves to be remembered for its artistry, unique creative vision, and interesting thematic interpretation of the tale. It’s critically flawed, but in the most benign way in that it neither offends nor detracts from the transcendent beauty of its best moments.
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