[In light of the news of Takahata’s passing away, we want to remember him, by rewriting and ‘renewing’ our review of his final monumental achievement.]
After a long hiatus – his last film My Neighbors the Yamadas dates from 1999 – Isao Takahata, a director who has long been overshadowed by his longtime colleague and studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, ‘returns’ to deliver his interpretation of the 9th/10th century classic Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (Taketori monogatari, 竹取物語). Is Takahata’s animated adaptation, which took eight years and a budget of 5 billion yen to make, worthy to be watched?
One day, Okina (Takeo Chii), an old bamboo cutter, discerns a sprout of bamboo. As it is unusually early for bamboo sprouts to grow, Okina decides to investigate this strange occurrence. Suddenly, the sprout starts to grow exceptionally fast, becoming a full grown tree in a matter of seconds.
Okina decides to cut this bamboo tree, and finds, to his surprise, a tiny perfectly proportioned girl (Aki Asakura) within the hollow stem. After thinking this miraculous little girl home, he and his wife Ouna (Noboku Miyamoto) decide to raise the bamboo-child as their own – they call her ‘Hime’, while her friends, like Sutemaru (Kengo Kora), due to her rapid growth, name her Takenoko (“Bamboo sprout”).
After Okina finds more treasures in bamboo stems, such as gold nuggets and fabrics, he decides to give Hime a life worthy of a princess, installing her in a palace with many attendants. Eventually, the word of Kaguya-Hime’s beauty spreads, attracting five suitors from prestigious families. Kaguya-hime asks the men to find memorable marriage gifts – gifts that would proof their love for her. But none of them succeeds. And then, the Emperor of Japan proposes to her.
The exploration of Kaguya-Hime’s extraordinary life is nothing other than a sad family drama that examines the consequences of desire. The narrative masterfully succeeds in showing the tragic effects the desire of her father, the suitors and the emperor have on Kaguya-hime. The father, for instance, is driven by his quest to give Kaguya-hime the life she, in his opinion, deserves. Soon enough, his desire to be of nobility pollutes this ‘noble’ quest. Through his reactions, it is very clear that the strides Kaguya-Hime makes in behaving like a princess serve his own purpose (Narra-note 1).
Because of the desire of others, Kaguya-hime becomes a treasure hidden in a box/cage (Narra-note 2). This is beautifully shown in the scene of the big feast to celebrate her adulthood, where Kaguya-hime, hidden in a cage, appears isolated from the festivities. This isolation is also very obvious, when the suitors present themselves. This isolation has two interrelated effects. First of all, it reveals that each suitor is attracted to a fantasized image of her beauty – the inability to see her instigating their desire. Secondly, the cage reduces Kaguya-hime to an undefinable object. The desire of the suitors can thus be described as a reduction of Kaguya-hime to a unknown shining object, a hidden sparkling treasure, to add to their wealth.
The refined use of the medieval Heian aristocratic setting is one of the core strengths of this cinematographical narrative. First of all, it provides an insight in how the Heian aristocratic world functioned, how a female child was treated in this context, e.g. Kaguya-hime’s aristocratic education, and how unmarried woman were viewed at that time. But more importantly, it is the perfect setting to underline the essence of the story, namely the tragic circumventing of Kaguya-hime’s desire by the father, the suitors and the emperor. In this respect, this narrative should not be seen as a feminist statement, but as a universal question about desire (General-note 1). Desire surpasses any gender differences.
The centrality of the question of desire implies that this anime is in no way a story for children and is aimed, just like the director instilled, at a more adult audience. Even though the narrative indirectly proposes an answer to the question it raises, it will nonetheless leave the audience ponder nostalgically for a while. In other words, The Tale of Princess Kaguya affects the audience not only because it ends in a sad way, but because it confronts us with this question of desire: Do we follow our own desire? Do we follow the desire of the other? Or would we rather have no desire at all? (Narra-note 3 [spoiler]).
The art style of the anime-narrative is very different from other Ghibli productions and differs greatly from usual anime styles. In The Tale of Princess Kaguya Takahata favors an impressionistic style, which is reminiscent of eastern brush paintings, i.e. the water color and ink art of ancient Japan. Besides painting an impressionistic painting of the Heinan aristocratic world, the moving interplay of brush/pen strokes, charcoal lines and lightly brushed colours is an exquisite celebration of the purity and beauty of movement as such and a precise accentuating of nature’s pure beauty. The passages where Kaguya-hime runs for example are a feast for the eyes and move the spectator emotionally at the same time.
The art turns the narrative, which is not that complex, in a more complex and moving whole. The art, by way of its stylistic flexibility, is able to sensible communicate the emotions of the narrative (Art-note 1) This is one of the reasons why the animation, supported by a sublime soundtrack, has the intrinsic ability to touch people emotionally and induce emotional responses in the spectator.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a major artistic accomplishment, due to the sublime execution of the narrative. The honesty and purity of the art, the ease by which the moving interplay of brush strokes and charcoal lines convey emotion, the thoughtful and effective use of music, and so on: in every aspect of the narrative, we feel the work of an exceptional craftsman. Furthermore, the narrative successfully ventures into the problematic reality of desire and delivers a wonderful, but sad meditation on desire and its effects. In our opinion, we should compare The tale of princess Kaguya with the premise of the narrative. Just like Kaguya-Hime is a gift from heaven, this movie is a gift from Takahata and Studio Ghibli. All what is left for us to do, is to accept and take this gift, cradled in own palms, to our friends and family and share this phenomenal masterpiece.
General note 1: The people who read this movie as a feminist statement seem to forget the Heian cultural context in which the story takes place.
Art-note 1: In the running scenes for example, the art becomes characterized by rougher pen strokes and a more muted colour palette.
Narra-note 1: When the Mikado (the emperor) is willing to give Okina a title of nobility in exchange for Kaguya-hime’s hand, Okina can sense the fulfillment of his desire. Kaguya-hime responds – beyond any desire from her part – that she would marry the emperor, if that would make her father happy.
Narra-Note 2: The image of a treasure in a box corresponds with the way she was found: hidden in a glowing bamboo tree. The image is also evoked in other ways, like through Kaguya-Hime’s bird in the cage.
Narra-Note 3: We can summarize the movie as follows: Kaguya-hime is punished and send to earth because she desired. Once on earth her desire is circumvented by the desires of the others. In a moment of weakness, she requests for ‘the lack of desire’. The movie concludes with the fulfillment of this desire.