It's a shame that the supernova of Hayao Miyazaki has sometimes blinded the world to the fact that there's another genius working at Studio Ghibli. That man is Isao Takahata, who once upon a time created The Grave of the Fireflies, one of the greatest of all animated films. His other work has been hard to get in North America, which is a criminal oversight. The appearance of The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) on these shores is therefore cause for celebration. It's one of the most beautiful and atypical films from Studio Ghibli, reflecting its director's restless experimentation with animation. It doesn't look like the studio's house style at all. Sometimes, it's deliriously abstract.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is based on a familiar (in Japan) fairy tale about a little girl who is found in a stand of bamboo by a poor bamboo cutter. The bamboo cutter and his wife raise the child as her own. The bamboo cutter believes that she is a gift from heaven, a view reinforced when he finds a stash of gold for her inside another bamboo stalk, and when still another bamboo stalk erupts with fine robes for her. The girl, for herself, grows rapidly, earning her the nickname of "Little Bamboo" by the boys in the neighborhood. Little Bamboo exults in being a child and playing with her friends, but her father has different plans for her. He takes her to the capitol so that she can be raised as a noble princess. To this end, he hires a tutor to refine her so she doesn't seem a country hick, and plans a huge party to debut her to the highborn nobility. She's named "Kaguya" which, ironically, means shining bamboo. She becomes a caged bird, with suitors coming by the dozen to claim her. Eventually, she's courted by five of the highest born nobles in the land, and each compares her to a fabulously rare object. Kaguya tasks each of them to bring her those objects so that she might compare them and thus marry the right man. Each of her suitors makes the attempt, with two of them bringing her fakes, one of them trying to con her, and the other two meeting ill luck in the quest. But the quest brings her to the attention of the Emperor, who decides to claim her as her own. This shocks Kaguya into the memory of who she really is, someone she would like to escape and live a simple life in the country. Unfortunately, that's not to be, because she also knows that her people are coming to reclaim her...
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is an achingly beautiful film, designed to resemble an animated charcoal drawing or watercolor painting by turns. It's not the smooth, polished animation of the familiar Studio Ghibli productions, but it's no less visionary in what it puts on the screen. It's a film that's in touch with the seasons: parts of it are lush and verdant. It takes time out to watch the blooming of flowers, the flights of birds. Sometimes it's bleak and foreboding. Even though it's not hyper-detailed, it's always alive and moving. Sometimes, as when Princess Kaguya dreams of her escape from her gilded cage during her naming party, it's pure movement framed as pure abstraction, with only the barest hint of strict representation. Its visual invention endlessly unfolds as the story progresses, and always within an economy of gesture and color that could be mistaken for minimalism, but for its generous variety.
For all that, this is a carefully observed film, one whose best moments are the sort of thing that other films might gloss over. Little Bamboo's infancy is replete with moments that provide a shock of recognition and humor that grounds the film in a reality that belies the abstraction of its visual surface. The movement of babies has been carefully observed and interpolated into a kind of universal slapstick. The natural world has been similarly envisioned, with the flowers opening in spring and the birds taking flight and passing animals in the brush all given a kind of verisimilitude that beggars lesser animated films. A few nights before going to see The Tale of Princess Kaguya, my partner and I tried watching The Croods a dumb computer-animated comedy about cavemen and, coincidentally, fathers and daughters. We made it about twenty minutes into the film before we threw up our hands and gave up. That film has no acquaintance with the reality of its setting, either anthropological or in its taxonomy of creatures. We didn't recognize anything in that film, so even if the creatures presented in that film are based on the real flora and fauna of the Pleistocene, it has over-designed them such that they're unrecognizable. That film wields formidable technological resources in a quest for a cartoony version of photorealism, but it doesn't match what Takahata manages in a few deft brushstrokes by taking nature on its own terms. This is the difference between a film conceived as commerce and one conceived as art, and because every second of film represents hours, days, or months of work, the patience required to focus on these moments rather than more bombastic set-pieces is profoundly disciplined. This is a film about people and personalities and a world that is real, not visuals, and the film never forgets that. By paying attention to the mundane details, it makes the fantasy and the visual bedazzlement effortless when they eventually come.
This is, of course, a movie about fathers and daughters, and its central conflict is between Okina the bamboo cutter, and Little Bamboo. Okina sees in his daughter something refined and elevated, and becomes a ruthless social climber in order to better his daughter's position in the world. Little Bamboo, on the other hand, wants to remain tied to the earth. This is reflected in the song she sings to herself, about birds and bugs and beasts, and in the happiness she feels with her childhood friends and her first crush, Sutemaru. Okina is completely blind to what makes his daughter happy, mistaking his own elevation as the instrument of making her happy. When Kaguya finally stands up to him, it's a shock to his system, and a defiance of the social order. Things go downhill from there. The film breaks the ambitions of all of its characters on the wheel of its plot. Okina's ambitions destroy Little Bamboo's happiness. Little Bamboo's confinement in the capitol sends Sutemaru to a life more ordinary, a woodcutter like his family and father to children with another woman. Little Bamboo's suitors all end in grief. She herself is destined to return to a place without memory or feeling. Given that the central figure of the entourage that comes to take Kaguya back to the moon resembles The Buddha, I wonder if this makes its critique of the social crucible of Japan's traditional caste system all-encompassing. This is a film that projects a universal critique from a specific and narrow focus. That''s a remarkable feat for a fantasy film.
In spite of the sadness engendered by its story, this is a film that's compassionate toward even its most venal characters. The suitors are all ultimately shown to be ridiculous, but when we see one of them nearly washed overboard on a stormy sea and when we see another fall from the roof of a temple to his death, there's a twinge of pity. Most fantasies fail to connect with the humanity of their characters, something that Studio Ghibli has always managed. This film's compassion is striking and heartbreaking.
This is one of the great animated films.
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