Last year marked a milestone for the history of animation, as the legendary Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away) of Studio Ghibli retired from filmmaking after the release of his final film, The Wind Rises. However, this year marks yet another milestone as master animator and Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday) brings us The Tale of the Princess Kaguya – a wonderful work of art based on one of Japan’s most beloved folktales.
This 10th century tale delves into the heart of Japanese mythology, telling the story of an old bamboo cutter who finds a mysterious baby girl born from a bamboo shoot. He and his elderly wife decide to raise the girl as their own. To their surprise, the newly adopted child ages at an accelerated rate. This, along with finding gold and beautiful handwoven kimonos within the same bamboo shoot, leads the couple to realize that she is a divine being destined for greatness.
Obsessed with raising his daughter into a princess and the opportunities it could bring for him, the bamboo cutter and his wife take her to the capital to have her groomed into a proper lady of the court. The daughter learns the ways of a lady as quickly as she ages, and the high priest names her Kaguya-Hime, “the Shining Princess,” for having “radiant beauty and a form as graceful as slender bamboo.” Kaguya quickly grows into a beautiful young woman and attracts five noble suitors. Even the Emperor himself is captivated by her. Yet Kaguya knows that her nature as a goddess incarnate means her time on Earth is limited, which leads her to despair.
Originally a simple fairy tale of ancient Japan, Takahata takes it a step further by contextualizing Kaguya’s feelings towards her life on Earth. Her melancholy is attributed not only to her limited time on this planet, but her inability to live the life she wants. Kaguya feels her life as a divine princess and her very name have ostracized her from society. She longs for the days when she was affectionately nicknamed Takenoko, or “little bamboo,” by her friends from the countryside. She misses her brief childhood, where she lived a simple yet happy life with her friends, and knows that she’ll never have it again.
As much as Kaguya tries to remain free-spirited and cheerful, she is held back by filial piety and her destiny to return from whence she came. Princess Kaguya’s tale is thus an inherently tragic story about a young woman who tries to make her own choices, but is held back by circumstance and fate.
The story’s simplicity combined with Takahata’s masterful contextualization of his characters’ emotions help truly bring this story to life. Where this movie completely drew me in was its visual beauty. Ghibli’s flawless hand drawn 2D animation is accompanied by gorgeous charcoal and watercolor art, giving the impression that you’re watching an ancient Japanese painting come to life. I’ve never seen animated visuals as beautiful as this.
These factors are combined with perfectly cast voice acting – especially from Aki Asakura, who makes the audience fall as madly in love with Kaguya as her suitors – as well as a captivating orchestral score from legendary composer Joe Hisaishi. This all blends together into what’s undoubtedly one of the greatest animated productions of all time. Despite losing the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature to Disney’s Big Hero 6, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a wonderful work of art from start to finish that will absolutely touch your heart.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.