Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio founded in 1985, has been one of the most important creative forces in contemporary screen culture, producing work of singular beauty, spirit and inventiveness. Its best-known figure is Hayao Miyazaki, the filmmaker who has given us masterpieces such as My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the work of one of the studio’s co-founders, Isao Takahata, who is less well-known and less prolific than Miyazaki, but no less intriguing. It is his first film in 14 years and possibly his last. Both men, now in their seventies, have said that they have directed their final features.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya has a distinctive, distilled look, a little different from what we have come to expect from Ghibli. Takahata has opted for a watercolour aesthetic, with a sense of movement coming from flowing brush strokes or jagged pencil lines. There is a lively immediacy in what we see; it is almost as if a line is being drawn right in front of us. Single frames or stills don’t do the film justice.
In this adaptation of a famous Japanese folktale, an elderly bamboo-cutter discovers a tiny, Thumbelina-sized baby girl in a tree in the forest. He takes her home to his wife; in her arms the baby suddenly morphs into a normal-sized baby. She lives with the couple, plays with local children, and keeps growing apace. The children call her Little Bamboo, because she grows so fast. One particular playmate, a boy called Sutemaru, means more to her than anyone else.
In another trip to the forest, the bamboo cutter finds gold and silken clothes hidden in a tree; this convinces him that the child is a princess, and this is her dowry. He decides that she must be brought up accordingly. So he acquires a mansion in the city, and sets about preparing the girl for the life of a noble. The name Kaguya, which means shining, is bestowed on her. Suitors call and ask for her hand; it seems as if she has left the world of the countryside far behind.
The visual style shifts and changes as the story unfolds, slowly and in somewhat episodic fashion, over more than two hours. We see the detail of Little Bamboo’s beloved natural world, as well as the elegant dimensions of her new life. There are some striking sequences that reflect the complexity of her emotions. One particular highlight is a frantic, hectically expressed fantasy of escape; a soaring dream of flight that comes near the end of the film is filled with both joy and melancholy.
There are light-hearted moments but there is something about Princess Kaguya’s experience that is moving and tragic. It is hard – perhaps even impossible – for her to become who she wants to be, or to live the life she might have aspired to.
This new release screens as part of a six-film Ghibli showcase. It includes The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s most recent film, and an early masterpiece from each director, both of which were released in 1988. From Miyazaki it is the peerless My Neighbour Totoro, the story of two small girls who move to the countryside and encounter magic and wonder while their sick mother convalesces in a hospital nearby. From Takahata, it is Grave of the Fireflies, a wrenching story of children struggling to survive after the devastation of the World War II bombings.
The showcase also features two recent documentaries that give us surprising insights into the world of Ghibli, and explicitly confront questions about its future. Isao Takahata and his Tale of Princess Kaguya is a frank two-part account of a fraught, protracted and idiosyncratic creative process. Mami Sunada’s graceful The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a more substantial work, covers some of the same ground, but within a broader context, focusing on life behind the scenes as Miyazaki was making The Wind Rises and Takahata was labouring over Princess Kaguya. Among other things, the film highlights the role of another important and enabling figure, producer Toshio Suzuki.
Studio Ghibli, it is clear, is in a stage of transition; this is an anxious time for its admirers. But these two sets of features, made 25 years apart, remind us just how remarkable its achievements have been, and continue to be.