Blinded by the supreme reign of Pixar, Disney and its ilk, it is sometimes easy to forget the comparable charm there is to be found in other farther afield, culturally-infused animations. However, this is exactly the reputation that Studio Ghibli, makers of such magnetising anime films as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and The Wind Rises, have spent decades cultivating and upholding. Their most recent venture, directed by Isao Takahata, takes the form of a delicate and beautiful fairytale.
The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, tells the story of how an elderly bamboo cutter one day discovers a tiny girl in a mysteriously illuminated bamboo stalk whom he deems a princess. Taking her home to his wife, they raise the little girl together, treating her like a gift from the gods and constantly striving to give her the best life possible. Her swift childhood is a happy one, as she grows at an unusually exponential rate, playing around with the neighbouring country children and developing a particular fondness for one young man, Sutemaru.
In his ardent determination to give the princess a lifestyle befitting royalty and to fulfil a destiny he believes the gods intended, the old bamboo cutter instead ends up diminishing the carefree happiness in her life by uprooting her from the simple country world and building a sprawling mansion in the capital to make their new home. Here Kaguya learns to behave as a genuine elegant, refined princess would – poles apart from her instinctively wild and playful nature and worlds apart from the friends who accepted it.
The misguided paternal ambition to surround the princess with beautiful robes, gold and clamouring suitors derails her from her true desire: to live fully and at one with nature like the birds, bugs and beasts with the people to whom her heart truly belongs. As a result, the story plunges into the depths of a surprisingly sombre ending; for a fairytale, there is not much by way of a happy ending and tender wishes are only ever realised within their fleeting dreams.
Much of the strength of this film lies in the way the style of the animation itself is as crucial to telling the story as any narrative or dialogue. The characters, particularly the princess herself, often exalt into balls of zealous energy – Kaguya enchanting, unruly and inherently incapable of seriousness; her father kind and well-meaning but sometimes quick to anger. More than just a moving visual cue, the changing emotions of the characters are steeped in the lines and colour of the screen, and the traditional Japanese style transforms and responds accordingly.
A particularly poignant peak in this achievement unfolds as the muted, blushing palette shifts to a rushing blur of blackened charcoal emblazoning Princess Kaguya’s innermost turmoil as she continues to struggle with her new life. The overall effect is like stepping into a picture book and the story as a whole progresses as if gliding over a painting – much like the lengthy scroll facetiously skimmed over by Kaguya in the film, but come to life.
Further substance is breathed into the story through the princess’s inability to be all things to all people, whether that be her father, her friends or her lovelorn suitors. The flaws that sprout within her family unit add a complexity to the relationships we observe, which elevates them to a state more mature than that normally seen in your usual fairytale. Contextually, what we are presented with is quite simple but the entangled interactions and multifaceted imperfections shape a layered plot on a slow burn.
Stripped of all modernity, this animated tale proves that you never really grow out of fairytales or their cinematic reimaginings; when brought to life so exceptionally, there is a magic about them that is never really lost.
The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD.