The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Manchester Cornerhouse, March 14 2015
Last year, with The Wind Rises, we saw the last film by Hayao Miyazaki, the man responsible (if we can say a single man is responsible) for making the name of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese Disney, a global brand. This year, we see The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, a film that took eight years to make, and may itself also be the last film by Miyazaki’s colleague, Isao Takahata.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a bravura performance, whose beauty exceeds that of The Wind Rises. Adapted from a 10th century story called ‘The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter’, itself regarded as the oldest extant Japanese prose narrative, and previously filmed by Kon Ichikawa as Princess from the Moon in 1987, Takahata’s animation takes the piece to sublime new heights. To begin with, these new heights are achieved purely from the way the film looks. This is animation produced via watercolours and charcoal and it looks beautiful. There are scenes in this film – such as Kaguya’s fit of pique when her ‘father’ attempts to ‘bring her out’ to society as a princess and she flees the party, or when she is reunited momentarily with her childhood friend, Sutemaru, and the two of them take flight across the pastures, hills and valleys of their formative years – that stand alongside the very best that Ghibli has ever produced. Sometimes the beauty is such, the frames so intricate, the detail so arresting, that you hunger after your eventual DVD so you can stop the work and just gaze uninterrupted at the flowers and the birds and the trees and the butterflies. Within a cinema, however, you watch this beauty race by and subtly, ever so subtly, larger points about mortality, about seizing every moment, about wringing every drop from life, are made more explicit in the wider narrative itself.
A bamboo cutter, drawn to a glowing bamboo tree, finds a girl, small enough to fit within the palms of his hands and beats a path home to his wife believing a gift has been made from Heaven. His wife takes the girl and, the bundle jumping lively in her hands, clothes flitting here, there and everywhere, a baby is left behind, albeit a baby given to making sudden, surprising growth spurts. The local children call her Lil’ Bamboo but to the Bamboo Cutter who found her and considers himself her father, she is a Princess. At first, as she mimics a pair of frogs (in scenes so obviously constructed after hours and hours spent watching how children move, it is quite miraculous to watch), and we join with her new family in sharing their joy, the slight tension between Lil’ Bamboo and Princess is easy to dismiss; later, it will form the bedrock of what comes to be a kind of tragedy. “Flower, bear fruit and die,” the children all sing, “be born, grow up, and die. Still the wind blows, the rain falls, the waterwheel goes round. Lifetimes come and go in turn.” Again and again, Kaguya returns to sing the song of her childhood.
After discovering first gold and then expensive material in the forest, her father takes it on himself to move the family to the city, where he intends to give his daughter the life that he thinks Heaven wants him to give her. Of course, it is not the life that Kaguya herself wants and she reacts to each societal turn of the wheel with increasing chagrin. A motley assemblage of suitors are dispatched on what Kaguya feels are impossible tasks, and each returns hoping to trick her into marrying them. Eventually, her rejection of the most eligible bachelors in the land brings the prince himself to her door and this both answers the question posed by the beginning of the film (where did she come from?) and presages the crisis that brings about the terrible, yet beautiful, climax to the film. Kaguya flees, one last time, and returns to the verdant groves of her youth, partaking one last time in the relationship that could possibly have meant something to her if she had been allowed to stay, sweeping across the world she wanted to call her own. And then – and then – her real family come to make a final and dramatic claim upon her. Takahata eschews Ichikara’s spaceship in favour of clouds that descend from the moon, Kaguya returned home, the expression on her face impossible and unreadable. If this was Hollywood, either her father or Sutemaru would appear to give us all the happy ending that we actually truly want – but this is not Hollywood and her father is rendered helpless, whilst Sutemaru is busy living his grown-up life elsewhere, on the mountain.
With just one more film in the pipeline – When Marnie was There – it isn’t quite time to call time to Studio Ghibli, but there is talk of ‘an indefinite hiatus’ beyond this last project, which is of course deeply disconcerting (will the run of extraordinary animations actually come to an end?). There is solace, however, to be taken from Ghibli’s apparently mortal lifespan: we are left with an unparalleled body of animated work – encompassing Castle in the Sky, Grave of the Fireflies, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ponyo, Arrietty and Tales from Earthsea, amongst others – that The Tale of Princess the Kaguya more than warrants a place alongside, and an undiminished admiration for Studio Ghibli itself.