Released on DVD late last year, fly on the wall documentary The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness provided a rare and candid look inside Studio Ghibli, arguably Japan’s most revered animation house. It captured the fastidious attention to detail the studio’s artists and technicians put into every frame of their films – specifically The Wind Rises, the final film from the legendary director Hayao Miyazaki.
Although barely caught on camera, studio co-founder and director Isao Takahata was working on his own film at the same time: The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya. Originally intended to be released theatrically on the same bill with The Wind Rises – just as My Neighbour Totoro and Grave Of The Fireflies were in 1988 – Princess Kaguya was repeatedly delayed. One of the documentary’s running jokes was that Takahata didn’t want to finish it – he wanted to labour away, furtively perfecting it, forever.
Except Takahata did finish it, and here it is: what might be, if reports are true, the final statement from the other creative pillar of Studio Ghibli. Takahata has often come across as the quieter, less obsessively hard-working one, perhaps (Miyazaki often referred to Takahata as “the sloth”) but he’s nevertheless a master storyteller in his own right: the bittersweet humour of Pom Poko and the utter heartbreak of Grave Of The Fireflies are testament to that.
Based on a Japanese folk story, The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya is every bit as ambitious, personal and brave as The Wind Rises. Takahata returns to a loose, fluid style of animation he first experimented with in My Neighbours The Yamadas – his curious series of comic vignettes detailing the day-to-day lives of an ordinary Japanese family. Each frame is brought to life with shimmering pencil strokes and splashes of ink – a look which might sound restricting when compared to the almost sculptural sense of depth in Studio Ghibli’s other output, but instead provides an immediate, expressive quality. It’s as though an artist’s attempted to sketch a moment as quickly as he can before it’s gone forever – but, by some miracle, that sketch has sprung to life and begun to move of its own accord.
The story is itself based around a miracle. In a feudal, pre-industrial era of Japan, a humble bamboo cutter, Sanuki, is going about his everyday work when he discovers a tiny figure sprouting from inside a bamboo plant. “Heaven must have sent her to me,” he says, scooping up the doll-like creature and taking her home.
Without a child of their own, Sanuki and his wife Ona are delighted when the doll transforms into a baby. As the baby grows, and begins to marvel at the natural world around her, the bamboo cutter makes further discoveries in the same enchanted part of the woodland: a pile of gold pieces one day, and a rainbow of expensive fabric the next. These, Sanuki believes, are a sign from heaven that their adopted daughter is actually a princess, and should be given a lifestyle to match.
The local children, meanwhile, have named the girl Little Bamboo because she grows so fast. She befriends the son of a potter, Sutemaru, and they play together every day. But the idyll of the countryside proves to be brief. Using the riches he found in the wood, Sanuki builds a grand mansion in the capital, where he hopes his daughter – christened ‘Princess Kaguya’ on account of her fragile beauty – will catch the eye of a wealthy nobleman.
Despite her lofty title, the newly-christened princess is reluctant to play the role set out for her. She resists her governess’s desire to have her eyebrows plucked and her teeth stained black. She repeatedly turns down the amorous attentions of her would-be suitors, who in any case seem to think of her as a creature to be tamed and kept in a gilded cage. Privately, the princess dreams of escape, and plays lonely music beneath a full moon.
From a slight story, Takahata crafts something bewitching. What’s fascinating is that Princess Kaguya contains so many of the recognisable trappings of a Ghibli film – the headstrong, tomboyish heroine, a fascination with the natural world – but presents them in a way that isn’t quite like anything we’ve seen from the studio before.
Takahata’s film could be seen as an allegory for the creative process of animation itself. The bamboo cutter and the governess are determined to have the princess dressed up in finery, plucked and polished into their idea of what is perfect or beautiful. The princess merely wants to get back to the purity of where she grew up: the life, the noise, the laughter, the freedom to move. “A woman only stands on special occasions,” the governess sternly reminds her.
By the same token, Princess Kaguya feels like the work of a director striving to return to the purity of a simple, pencil-drawn line or a stroke of delicate colour from a brush. Here, beauty lies in what is innocent and unspoiled, not daubed on or sullied by a clumsy human hand. True essence of life, the film seems to say, lies in what is fleeting. “The water wheel goes around,” a prominent song in the film goes, “Lifetimes come and go in time.”
Princess Kaguya is a mournful allegory about the brevity of life and also a celebration of it. Its ending sweeps in on some of the most delightful, uplifting music Studio Ghibli’s regular composer Joe Hisaishi has ever written. With an unusual visual style and considerable length (a shade under 140 minutes), The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya isn’t as accessible as some of the studio’s other films, such as My Neighbour Totoro or Spirited Away. But like the best Ghibli films, it gets to the core of what it means to be alive – the spontaneity, sadness and joy of existence.
The result is a film made with a sincerity and craft that is so lovely as to be almost heartbreaking. Isao Takahata may have taken his time making The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, but the wait has been more than worthwhile. It’s a work of breathtaking imagination.
The Tale Of Princess Kaguya is out on the 20th March.
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