DM Haight


True art is something you encounter all too rarely in popular cinema. Even through animation, especially in America, there are few moments of genuine genius, of unequaled inspiration. Isao Takahata, one of Studio Ghibli’s most renowned directors, has crafted a film that is, not simply inspirational, or entertaining, but a piece of work that transcends cinema. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is on a new level of artistic genius. Takahata’s team at Ghibli have given motion, life, to beautiful pencil drawings, works that beckon to the wood carvings of the Edo Period–so simplistic, yet incomparably complex. I have never seen a film with the artistic intent and execution as Kaguya. Unlike the works of other Ghibli directors, Miyazaki and Yonebayashi in particular, there is a very distinctive division in art concepts. While Miyazaki and co have defined a generation of Ghibli, Takahata continues to redefine the Studio’s incredible work in perfecting the art of animation. Effectively, Takahata has shown that even Ghibli can throw curveballs.

Kaguya is based on “The Tale of The Bamboo Cutter”, a Japanese folk tale. The adaptation brings, at least to western audiences, a slice of Japanese culture and heritage, providing a healthy, new fairy tale that doesn’t involve caucasian girls with long, flowing hair, looking for the man of their dreams (granted, the old cliches of Disney are slowly being repealed). The lore revolves around a child, cut from the stalk of bamboo. This girl was a princess, more beautiful than all the rest, longing to enjoy the world as it’s offered to her. Of course, this Kaguya, the title character, looks normal on screen. It is up to us to believe that she’s drop dead gorgeous, and innocent, desirable woman who’s worth all the trouble she causes. And she causes trouble: fortunes are lost, seas are traversed, marriages are undone, and lives are even taken. All the suitors in all the realm, and she wants nothing but to return to the humble beginnings of her youth, before the gods divined that she be wealthy and refined. Back to the days of chasing frogs and swimming in ponds is all Kaguya wants. Her adopted father, for all his attempts to please her, refuses to heed her desire for a return.

A story about a young girl, rich and powerful, beautiful beyond reason, sought after, respected, intelligent–and yet she wants to give it away. The statement about the current social mindset is not lost. Simplicity is usually the most enjoyable, and always the best remembered. Kaguya reminds her parents, after it is all too late, that the back woods was a home worth living in. Riches and nobility aside, the best way to rear a child and appreciate them is to deprive the fineries you might want for them.

By glazing over the romances, even making fun of them and their traditional pomp, results in an epiphany of being free and exploring, not yourself, but the pleasures of nature. Floating through a sea of grass, learning to hop, playing refined instruments as if they were children’s toys–the elements that make up a devious, exciting, and enchanting childhood. Towards the end of the narrative Kaguya is asked, when she states how much she wishes she could have had a simpler life, and a truer love with her old friend, Sutemaru. When he inquires if her desire includes working off the land, relinquishing the clothes, food, and comfort of wealth, she doesn’t hesitate to say she’d give it up without a second thought. Freedom of life, freedom from the mundane, expecting aristocratic authority is, in the eyes of Kaguya, a far greater existence than kneeling to the traditions of female oppression.

Takahata does more than just set a few images on a reel spin it, he gives us a lesson on history and culture, relevant for this and every generation to come. Princess Kaguya, with its stylized, unique animation style, and its engrossing, thought-provoking story about life, growth, and understanding, will absolutely stand the test of time. It is a film that will never be dated because its source material is eternal. A story of moon gods and humans, misunderstanding and good intentions, of being free and accepting fate. These are the qualities of masterpiece.

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