Wednesday, 18 June 2014

[Review] The Tale of Princess Kaguya

The legendary Studio Ghibli is perhaps at the end of an era as it’s pioneering founders are gracefully preparing to bow out of the limelight. It was only four months ago that The Wind Rises, what is said to be Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, made its way over from Japan. Now, after a 14 year absence from Ghibli, Isao Takahata returns with what is rumoured to be his swan song, The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Originally planned for a simultaneous release with The Wind Rises in its native homeland last July, the film suffered numerous production delays stagnating its release date. Having now seen the film, I can say it was well worth the wait as Isao Takahata delivers an old world mythical tale in stunning form.

Based on a 10th Century folktale said to be one of the oldest known pieces of Japanese literature, the story is about a bamboo cutter who comes across a miniature Princess radiating from a sprout. He takes the princess home to his wife, where she mysteriously transforms into a human baby before their eyes. Believing that she is a gift from the heavens, the couple decides to raise the child as their own.

The child’s growth spurt is inexplicably rapid. Almost overnight, she grows from a toddler to a little girl. Amazed by his miracle child, the Bamboo cutter becomes increasingly convinced that the Gods desire the child to become a Princess. It also helps matters that he conveniently finds a copious amount of gold in another Bamboo Stalk. Using the found wealth, he rushes off to the Capitol in order to build a mansion befitting of royalty. Meanwhile, the girl, affectionately dubbed “Lil’ Bamboo” by her friends from the local neighbouring village, is whisked away from the simple rural village to the big city.

It’s no secret that Studio Ghibli has a history of presenting well rounded, well developed and strong female characters. Princess Kaguya is no exception to this long-standing tradition. Voiced by Aki Asakura, who lends a spectrum of emotional chords, she grows from a carefree child to a beautiful young woman in due time. Blessed with the name Kaguya, and taken under the wing of her tutor. However, the young Princess is not receptive to the proper ways of the Monarchy. When her tutor explains to her the method of Ohaguro (dyeing one’s teeth black), the princess protests, decrying it as inhuman to force a Princess to hide their smile. Meanwhile, her relationship with her mother blossoms, whilst her father becomes increasingly distracted by his never ending quest to appease the gods.

As word of her beauty spreads through the Capitol, she attracts all sorts of well-to-do suitors contending for the honour of her hand in Marriage. However, marriage is the last thing on the rebellious Princess’ mind, as she pines for her carefree childhood days in the rural village. In an act of defiance, she deems each of the suitors with an impossible quest to fulfil. Helping to buy her time. However, the situation is further complicated as the Emperor himself takes a fancy to the young Princess.

It's mostly a battle of wills. Kaguya’s adopted father wishes for nothing more than for his daughter to grow up as he sees fit. The tagline of the film hints at an ominous underlining. “The Crimes and Punishments of a Princess." Although, strangely enough, much like the original tale, the sins of Kaguya are never explicitly stated. One can assert that the crimes in question, in this version at least, are more in tow with her admittedly buffoonish yet loving father. Who, as caring as he may be, becomes increasingly obsessed with buying his way into high society. Leaving his adopted daughter in a state of torn crisis as she wrestles with the conflict of being a by-product to his desired materialism.

Technically speaking, it is an astounding film to watch in motion. Takahata and the incredible team at Studio Ghibli deserve all of the praises. The style of animation employed is the very definition of minimalist. It looks like an ink-wash painting given the gift of life. Helping to compliment the old world locale and period so entirely. Backdrops appear as if they’ve been lightly sketched with pencils, and given only a hint of water brushed colour.

The use of colour is muted and watered down to achieve that faint water coloured look. But in a few larger than life fantastical sequences, the colours pop with vibrancy. Although the few instances that Takahata does allow the film to venture into the fantastical are breathtaking to say the least. Keep an eye out for the show stealing moment involving one of the suitors attempting to battle a make-shift cloud Dragon.

This minimalist technique is not necessarily new found ground for Takahata. After all, he employed a similar style of minimalism in his 1992 film Only Yesterday. But as exhibited here the technique is on a whole other level. It's a stunning achievement further complimented by a rather tender and mostly string based soundtrack by Miyazaki regular Joe Hisashi. Making this the first time that he has collaborated with Takahata.

There is a meditative existentialism to behold as the narrative unravels. With that said, it is difficult to discuss in great detail without spoiling vital plot points. I will say this much though. The conclusion leads to a transient moment of bittersweet heartbreak. Leaving Kaguya to deliver a profoundly bittersweet ode to an imperfect world. It may have taken 14 years, but the wait has been entirely worth it. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is an exceptional piece of work from a truly gifted filmmaker. If the rumours are correct, and this is to be the final film from Isao Takahata, then he is bowing out on an exceptionally high note.

(out of five)

-Daniel M



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