The deceptive simplicity of the hand-drawn animation in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is more than elegantly unassuming. It’s also a perfect match for one of the picture’s themes. Based on a Japanese folktale about a tiny girl found inside a bamboo stalk who is pushed into princesshood by her adoptive parents, this is a movie largely about losing sight of the unadorned in favor of the ornate.
And so The Tale of the Princess Kaguya stands in obvious contrast to the manic, jam-packed computer-animated action comedies of Hollywood, to be sure, but also notably to the work of Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro). Isao Takahata, the director and co-writer of Kaguya, founded Studio Ghibli alongside Miyazaki, and while they clearly share an affinity for the inherent wonder of the natural world, Takahata has offered something distinctively elemental here, a film seemingly built on nothing more than slight sketches and quick brushstrokes. Yet despite that – or perhaps because of it – The Tale of the Princess Kaguya still carries tremendous weight and power.
Kaguya (Aki Asakura) is found by an older couple in a bamboo forest, who raise her in their humble home. As she grows (with uncommon quickness), she comes to love the endless beauty of the surrounding woods. One of the signature pieces in the film is a singing march through the forest, in which Kaguya and friends delight in the bounty around them, from wild pheasants to hidden mushrooms. While detailed in ways that recall Katsushika Hokusai’s woodblock prints of Mount Fuji, the landscape animation here also has an unfinished quality at the edges of the screen, so that the scenery lightly fades into white as it if were on a picture book page.
The scenery lightly fades into white as it if were on a picture book page.
More magic occurs in these woods, as Kaguya’s father cuts open another stalk of bamboo to discover gold nuggets; yet another erupts into a fountain of colorful fabric. He interprets this to mean that Kaguya is mean to be a “noble princess,” not a “country girl,” and so he constructs an elaborate mansion in the capital and moves the family there. Kaguya accepts her fate, taking lessons in ladylike behavior from a heavily robed instructor with a sharply angled face, yet she always longs for home. In a touching scene, Kaguya discovers her mother has reconstructed their former home in a back corner of the palace, complete with a wild garden. If she rests her head on the ground and looks through the grasses and flowers, Kaguya says, it looks like their village in miniature.
Kaguya does have one moment of outright rebellion, though tellingly it’s in a dream. The animation – previously a delicately sketched form of realism – becomes an impressionistic blur, as Kaguya bursts from the palace, shedding her robes as if bleeding paint and racing against a dark landscape with the speed and ferocity of a wolf. It’s exhilarating and frightening at the same time – a startling burst of Kaguya’s spirit and a reminder of her supernatural roots.
The supernatural comes to the fore in the picture’s climax, which reveals where Kaguya came from and where her fate lies. It’s an intermingling of Buddhist transcendentalism and a love for the simple things of this earth, complete with a trippy cloud party beneath the light of an enormous moon. If Western viewers might feel a bit narratively lost here, The Tale of Princess Kaguya should still strike a chord deep within the heart. As a reminder of the things aspirational societies too soon forget, the movie is universal.