Tale of the Princess Kaguya, The (2013)

A familiar if exposition-heavy anime that prides itself in being remarkably composed with its sheer beauty and breathtaking visuals.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dir. Isao Takahata
2013 | Japan | Animation/Drama/Fantasy | 137 mins | 1.85:1 | Japanese
NC16 (passed clean)
for thematic elements, some violent action and partial nudity

Cast: Aki Asakura, Yukiji Asaoka, Isao Hashizume, Takaya Kamikawa, Kengo Kora
Plot: Found inside a shining stalk of bamboo by an old bamboo cutter and his wife, a tiny girl grows rapidly into an exquisite young lady.  The mysterious young princess enthralls all who encounter her – but ultimately she must confront her fate, the punishment for her crime.
Awards: Nom. for Best Animated Feature (Oscars)
International Sales: Wild Bunch / Studio Ghibli

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Destiny
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: Blu-ray
First Published: 11 Mar 2016
Spoilers: No

Always in the shadow of Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, the other Studio Ghibli stalwart, is one of the most underappreciated animation directors in the world.  But those who have seen his works speak of their adulation for his craft. 

Best known for the ultra-tearjerker Grave of the Fireflies (1988), released in the same year as Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, Takahata has gone on to make the underrated Only Yesterday (1991), Pom Poko (1994), My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999), and most recently, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, coincidentally also released in the same year as Miyazaki’s purported final film, The Wind Rises (2013).

Nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, Princess Kaguya is not Takahata’s best work, but it could be his most beautiful.  Centering on a fantastical occurrence but very much grounded in reality, the animation follows an old bamboo cutter as he discovers a tiny girl, who is half the size of his palm, in the forest. 

Together with his wife, they raise her in their cozy hut in natural surroundings.  After receiving gold from a bamboo tree, the bamboo cutter has delusions of grandeur, with the desire to turn the girl into a princess, and enjoy a comfortable and happy life in a grand city palace.

“Come round, call back my heart. Birds, bugs, beasts, grass, trees, flowers. Teach me how to feel. If I hear that you pine for me, I will return to you.”

It is a familiar story, one that you would have seen in different forms, which may not earn the film any brownie points in terms of storytelling.  But it has its moments of splendour, particularly the final act that gives us a sense of wonderment – what seems heavenly is also bittersweet, and that is all you should know. 

Princess Kaguya is a very exposition-heavy anime, and sometimes it does feel like it is going through the requisite beats of the kind of story it is telling.  Perhaps this is why it runs a tad too long at more than two hours. 

However, what tides the viewer over are its breathtaking visuals, almost watercolour-like in its sheer organic beauty, as well as the simple yet exquisite music by Miyazaki regular Joe Hisaishi (in his first collaboration with Takahata). 

The climactic music is a graceful, melodic anthem – personally I think it does for Zen Buddhism what Ennio Morricone’s cue ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven’ did for Catholicism in The Mission (1986). 

As the director’s swansong, Princess Kaguya is befitting of a final hurrah and a nice parting gift for his fans.  It is never a formidable masterwork, but this is as good as it gets for Studio Ghibli in recent years.  Worth a pop.

Grade: A-




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