In a world where audiences are finally embracing animated princesses who are strong and independent, Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya feels right at home alongside films like Frozen and Brave. Unlike those films though, Takahata has much loftier goals. His narrative attempts to not only present an intricate story in a cohesive way, but also tackle complicated adult themes through a childlike sense of innocence. The latter being a trait that Studio Ghibli has been mastering for years.
Based on one of Japan’s oldest folktales, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, the story involves an elderly bamboo cutter, Taketori no Okina, who finds a miniature princess within a bamboo stalk. Taking the form of a human baby, Okina and his wife are captivated by the presence of this magical creature. Raising her as if she was their own child, the couple is not only amazed by how rapidly she physically grows, but also her swift ability to adapt to her surroundings. Believing that the young girl, who is eventually named Kaguya, is a princess sent from heaven, and finding items such as gold and rich fabrics in other bamboo stalks, Okina is convinced that his goal in life is to give the princess the lavish lifestyle she deserves.
Forced to leave the rural village she loves for life in the city, Kaguya finds it difficult to adapt to the expectations of high society. When rumours of a beautiful, but reclusive, princess begin to spread, men from all over race to win Kaguya’s affections. The most persistent of which being five men from prestigious families who are willing to do anything in their power to claim this seemingly unattainable prize as their bride. Though Okina believes that marriage will be the ultimate form of happiness for Kaguya, the fiercely independent princess has other views as to the path her life is to take.
Utilizing line drawing techniques, to evoke a sense of imagination and wonder, Takahata’s film feels both classic and fresh at the same time. A stunning sight to behold, the animation is especially dazzling in both Kaguya’s dream sequence and the scene in which one of her suitors gets caught in a storm. In regards to the latter, Takahata’s uses the violent storm to convey the vibrant imagery of dragons administering Mother Nature’s wrath.
Aside from lush visuals, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya nicely captures both the beauty and innocence that comes with watching a young child discover the world, and the subservient role of women in upper class society. The film spends a large amount of time detailing the rituals and customs that come with living amongst the elite. This is a bit of a gift and a curse to the production as a whole. The film simply tries to squeeze in too much.
The biggest flaw in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is its pacing. As easy as it is to be swept away by the euphoric mastery of animation on display, at times it feels like the audience has been wading in the middle of the ocean for far too long. The middle section slows to a crawl, only picking up momentum again with the reemergence of the conniving five suitors. By time the Emperor of Japan shows up to try to woo Kaguya, the audience has already had enough of that particular plot thread.
Luckily the mysticism of the last act redeems some of the missteps that Takahata makes. While not the best film by Isao Takahata, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is still a film that deserves to be seen. When it hits the mark, such as with the scenes involving Kaguya’s early years and the mesmerizing final act, it is simply stunning. Plus even a good, but not great, Takahata film is still worth its weight in gold.
Sunday, September 14, 3:15 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Ticket information can be found at the TIFF website.