Film review: The Tale of Princess Kaguya - a royal animation

Published: March 1, 2015
The real magic in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya lies in its technique.

The real magic in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya lies in its technique.

Studio Ghibli has given the world some of the most amazing animated films. Co-founded by the venerable Hayao Miyazaki and his longtime creative collaborator Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli has pushed the limits of the type of stories that can be told through animation. The distinctive stylistic treatments of Studio Ghibli productions, especially in films helmed by Miyazaki, have carved a niche as far as the world of animated features is concerned, both inside and outside Japan. Since Miyazaki retired from active film-making last year, the spotlight has now shifted to Takahata, to keep the magic going.

With the Oscar-nominated The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Takahata has once again proven why people world over wait for Studio Ghibli films with bated breath. The film is a temperate adaptation of a Japanese folktale, The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter. The story focuses on a humble middle-aged bamboo-cutter who finds a child in a bamboo grove and brings her home to his astonished wife. In their modest hut, both husband and wife witness the magical transformation of the sprite-like creature into an actual infant, who then starts growing by leaps and bounds — literally like a bamboo. The bamboo-cutter is convinced that the child is a princess and that he has been selected to help her fulfill her destiny. This belief is reinforced when the bamboo-cutter finds innumerable gold coins and luxurious fabrics in the same manner he had found the child. His wife, a sensible and loving woman, endures his passionate speeches about the ‘princess’ and her destiny; yet, keeps him grounded with her practical demeanour and no-nonsense attitude. She proves to be the ideal normalising agent in the young child’s life, who is named Little Bamboo by her rowdy friends.

Through the course of the film, the bamboo-cutter convinces his wife to relocate to a big city so that they can introduce Little Bamboo as a true noblewoman. For this purpose, a large mansion is bought, servants are hired and a governess is selected to turn the girl into Princess Kaguya. However, the transformation comes at the cost of the loss of innocence in Kaguya and causes much grief and anguish to those she loves the most.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a staggeringly harrowing film packed with emotions. It stands out because of Takahata’s drained colour palette as opposed to Miyazaki’s rich and saturated one. Each frame seems to be the pages of an old fairytale compendium with flowing, fluid paint strokes in muted colours. Additionally, the intensity of colour waxes when Kaguya is happy and wanes when she is shown to be sad or angry.

Based on a fairytale, the film can perhaps be likened to those written by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen before they were sanitised by Disney for mass consumption. But where Miyazaki’s films often offer no direct moral lessons, Takahata’s retelling of the old Japanese tale ends on an absolute note that leaves no room for random speculation. But despite its strengths, the Japanese animated marvel wasn’t able to bag an Oscar.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 1st,  2015.

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