Last year, legendary Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli released in America The Wind Rises, the allegedly final film by master animator and director, Hayao Miyazaki. Although I haven't seen that film (which is sitting in my home in a Netflix sleeve right now), it marks the end of an era, because it is hard to imagine cinema—let alone animation—without the towering presence of Miyazaki. He informs practically everyone who is working in animation these days, whether it's John Lasseter, Brad Bird, or any other director worth his/her salt. That said, it's easy to forget about the other visionaries who are still hard at work at Studio Ghibli, putting in the incredible amounts of patience, manpower, and time it takes to handcraft their gorgeous films. Miyazaki's son, Goro, has directed two of his own, as well as Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arriety), who is the person behind the upcoming When Marnie Was There, supposedly the final Studio Ghibli film before it goes on hiatus. The only director who can come even close to challenging Miyazaki's stature is Isao Takahata. And boy, is he close.
Those of you who are familiar with Roger Ebert's Great Movies list may be aware of a Japanese animated film named Grave of the Fireflies. This film is set in rural Japan during World War II, and is about an adolescent boy and his four-year-old sister, who have to survive on their own in the wilderness when their village and family are destroyed by firebombing. It is a devastating, brutally sad film that will leave you speechless. This actually happened to me and my friends when we watched it—half a dozen grown men sat in silence for about ninety seconds while the credits rolled. So I believe I can be excused for being a bit apprehensive about how traumatized I was going to be when I found out that Takahata is also responsible for last year's The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which had its American debut quite recently. Fortunately, this one is based off of the oldest known fairy tale in Japanese culture, not a semi-autobiographical, anti-war novel.
By now, the anime style is ubiquitous, finding its way into pop culture of all kinds, due to its versatility, simplicity, and potential for mass production. It can be either bleak and ugly (Cowboy Bebop, Akira) or colorful and cheerful (Pokémon). Even Western TV shows have aped its big-eyed, rubber-faced approach, with shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Teen Titans, and the Canadian show, Totally Spies!. There is also the little known, yet massively influential Satoshi Kon, whose films like Paprika have their mark all over the place (check out Every Frame a Painting for a crash course in Kon). Despite anime's ubiquity, Studio Ghibli nevertheless has an ineffable signature to it; you can always tell when you're watching a film produced there. This makes them feel of a piece with one another, even if the stories they tell are radically different, thematically, incidentally, and stylistically from one another.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is perhaps the biggest departure from the in-house Ghibli technique. Eschewing the silky smooth animation of its predecessors, Kaguya employs a style that is reminiscent of the video game Okami, with its thick, calligraphy brush lines and abstract, luminously colorful drawings that look as though they were done with crayon. It has a storybook feel to it, because the images are drawn to feel almost like a slideshow, with the movement of characters and objects created by the suggestion of our brains, rather than its actual depiction. However, like its predecessors, there is a mix of realism and fantasy to the design of the characters and the world, with some of the more grotesque possessing enormous faces and features, whereas the protagonist is more lifelike. The art style is entrancing and immersive. Should Kaguya gain a large enough audience, I can anticipate people becoming depressed about leaving its environments in the same way they hated to depart from the Pandora of James Cameron's Avatar.
The story is about the eponymous Princess (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is found as a tiny, dollhouse version of herself in a bamboo shoot by The Bamboo Cutter (James Caan). Advanced in age and believing her to be a gift from heaven, he and his wife (Mary Steenburgen), who are childless, decide to take her in as their adopted daughter. Immediately, the Princess begins to grow at a rapid rate, first transforming into an infant, then progressing into a little girl and then finally a ravishingly beautiful young woman. She befriends the rough-hewn local boys in their village, including Sutemaru (Darren Criss). The Bamboo Cutter, wanting a better life for the Princess than the low-class struggle he leads, comes into a fortune (provided also by a bamboo shoot), investing it into an enormous mansion in the capitol, where he moves the Princess once she comes of age. There, she is molded into a lady with the assistance of the staid Lady Sigami (Lucy Liu), and she receives the name Kaguya, in reference to the otherworldly light she gives off. However, the Princess yearns to leave the life of silence and submission that has been forced upon her to return to the forest, where she believes she can be happy and free again.
Because this is a fairy tale, the larger picture of sthe tory proceeds in typically predictable fashion. Yet Takahata, who co-wrote the screenplay with Riko Sakaguchi, finds countless moments of humor, grace, and emotion throughout the story. His approach is that of the utmost control and stillness, often preferring silence to noise in many situations. That is not to discredit the gorgeous score by Joe Hisaishi, who also composed for The Wind Rises. Given the loose framework provided by the ancient story, Takahata moves the film along at a deliberate pace. He includes scenes that seem to be there for their own sake, but they all work to build the world that these characters live in, and are far more important than any amount of zippy, pointless incident that afflicts so many animated films. And although children should definitely see this movie, its themes and storytelling require thought and attention, making this more a work for adults.
Adults will also appreciate the wrenching metaphor that this film aims for, which is the anguish of watching your child grow up. The Princess changes in both form and personality alarmingly fast, to the point that the Bamboo Cutter works himself up into tears at the mere sight of her walking for the first time (despite the fact that she had been born literally only yesterday). The Princess's adopted mother and father want only the best for her, but fundamentally do not understand her as a living being or the direction that she wants to head in—stop me if that sounds familiar to your own experience. Takahata wisely never belabors the point, merely telling the story in through its fantastical trappings, and allowing the symbolism of it all to emerge organically. Perhaps the one criticism that can be made is the film's length, which clocks in at roughly two hours and fifteen minutes. This is considerable by any standard, but this film's meandering narrative makes it even more obvious, slowing down to a crawl in the middle of the second act. Had Takahata been more judicious with his editing, this could have been near perfect.
Watching The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a rapturous experience, and does not flag even when viewing the dubbed English version, whose cast is just as sensitive and in tune as you'd expect from Studio Ghibli. If this truly is the penultimate offering from this extraordinary production company, then the final one has a lot to live up to.