Directors: Isao Takahata
Writer: Isao Takahata, Riko Sakaguchi
A bamboo cutter witnesses a tiny girl appear in a bamboo shoot and, believing she shows the favor of heaven, takes her home to raise as his own. Her exquisite beauty captures the hearts of all who look at her, but she harbors a secret and must one day face her past. A retelling of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.
Studio Ghibli has a reputation for creating films of breathtaking beauty and wonder and The Tale of Princess Kaguya continues in that tradition. From the opening scene where a miniature girl appears within a glowing bamboo stalk to the final moments when the truth about her past is revealed, the film radiates with all the joy, the mystery, the poignancy of life. It is one of those stories that touches your heart, the kind that stays with you.
Though the story possesses an intriguing plot–who is this girl? from where does she come? whom will she marry?–the most memorable moments, to me, are the small ones, the simple depictions of everyday life in Kaguya’s village, the joyous days she spends with her friends. These scenes, while doing little to forward the plot, are key; they illustrate exactly what life is to Kaguya and what, to her, constitutes happiness. Of course, life is not fair and Kaguya is still too young to know that, so over her idyllic days suspends a sense of foreboding of which only viewers are aware. These darkness makes those moments even more precious.
The plot itself is absolutely lovely, if you enjoy fairy tales in the traditional vein. It may not be convoluted, but it possesses its own complexities in its honest look at human nature–greed, falseness, ambition, lust, and more all are represented. More rarely are kindness and understanding shown. This makes the second half of the film sometimes unbearably sad, but it also imparts to the film a unique honesty. Even fairy tales, it says, do not always turn out happily ever after.
The most striking aspect of the film, however, may not be the story but the artwork. Exquisitely hand-drawn with watercolor and ink, it sometimes delicately depicts the beauty of the natural world or the intricacy of material wealth, but, at other times, seems to break down into impressionism. This gives the film raw power, allowing the narrative at key moments to play out silently, all emotion expressed through line and form. This is the first “breathtaking” piece of art that literally made me catch my breath.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a wonderful, beautiful, heartbreaking story. It has already made my list of the most powerful films I have ever seen.