Any film from Studio Ghibli is a treat. The Japanese anime house has put out some great movies over the years, including Hayao Miyazake’s films Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (2001), and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). Now officially retired, Miyazake’s worked slowly but steadily, putting out a film every five years or so. His Studio Ghibli cofounder Isao Takahata is even less prolific. The director of the masterful WWII story Grave of the Fireflies (1988) has only made three films since, his last My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) released over fourteen years ago. His return at age 78 with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2014) shows that Takahata hasn’t missed a beat. Beautiful and moving, he delivers another anime masterpiece.
Based on a tenth century Japanese folktale, The Tale of Princess Kaguya follows a mysterious girl, clearly a fairy of some sort (if such a thing can ever be clear) as she grows to womanhood in feudal Japan. We begin in the forest, when one day a simple bamboo cutter Okina finds a baby in the folds of a bamboo shoot, and brings the infant home to his wife Ona. They raise the child as their own, and quickly discover that their daughter is truly not of this world. She grows unnaturally fast, aging months in an instant. The local kids accept her nonetheless, playing with her even as she ages and grows at a much faster clip than they themselves. They shrug off these sudden spurts as part of the matter-of-fact wonder of childhood. Okina discovers a cache of gold and lavish silks in the forest, which he takes as a sign of Kaguya’s royal heritage. He moves her away from her friends to a lavish home in the capital city, where the now beautiful young woman is besieged by suitors. Ever willful, Kaguya refuses her lofty would-be paramours, setting them impossible tasks to keep them at bay. As they hilariously fall over themselves trying to meet her demands, the mystery of Kaguya’s origins grows. Though Okina desperately wishes her to rise to her rightful rank in the city, she’s clearly destined for something else.
The style of The Tale of Princess Kaguya is beautiful and unique, fluid Japanese watercolours and charcoal drawings brought to life. Children’s folksongs shift as Kaguya sings them, unearthing haunting, older melodies and words hidden within. Themes of the enduring joy of nature versus the rancorous climbing of the city make for entertaining contrasts, and Princess Kaguya is a proto-feminist for the ages, a brave and determined young woman who can only be true to herself. The final twist of her origins lends the lengthy film an added layer of pathos. No spirit is free forever, and a true princess must take her place eventually. But oh, how she shines.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is on now, playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. Norm Wilner of Now Magazine will introduce the 6:40pm screening tonight, Tuesday, October 21st, and conduct a Q&A after. The film will continue this week. For more info, see here.