Film Review: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

In terms of critical and popular acceptance, Isao Takahata has always been overshadowed by his Studio Ghibli colleague Hayao Miyazaki. For a creator less assured of his own abilities than Takahata-san the silver medal could have been the cause of a complex of some description. But brilliance of Takahata’s kind doesn’t allow for jealousy, and while Miyazaki undoubtedly produced some of the most beautiful and insightful animated films the world has ever seen, Takahata decided to walk a different path.

An interesting juxtaposition of the films of Miyazaki and Takahata happened in 1988 when the former’s My Neighbour Totoro was put on a double bill in Japan with the latter’s Grave of the Fireflies. Both Ghibli animés, rough Anglophonic equivalents for both films would be Winnie the Pooh and Schindler’s List (only without the “happy” ending), respectively. Indeed as the double features alternated which film was shown first in a given cinema, the numbers who couldn’t face another film dramatically increased when Takahata’s film was presented first.

Takahata was always an experimenter, never happy to repeat himself, either in terms of style or story. With The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Takahata has created a beautiful ode to Japanese painting in this water-coloured adaptation of an old folktale. Every frame of this film is like the beautiful Japanese woodcuts of the 19th Century and in that sense the experience of watching the film is not unlike spending over two hours in a museum. But that description doesn’t go any way towards describing the heart in the picture.

What’s worth noting is that at almost two hours and twenty minutes The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is very long, particularly for an animated film. It’s a confident move from a confident director, particularly when dealing with a story as intimate as this. By comparison Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke came in at around two hours, but that was about a war between man and nature and the mutually assured destruction such a war would naturally entail. Here we’re dealing with a story of personal development, one about a celestial being perhaps, but dealt with in a very level headed way.

What should attract a viewer to this film is the beauty it not only presents, but actively endorses in its narrative. Every frame of the film was drawn with the same level of care and attention a painter would put into their opus, and it all adds to the powerful endorsement of beauty and life as presented by the film’s ending. Beauty, it says, is not to be found in some unattainable ideal, but here on earth, amongst the trees and the birds and the friends we make. As possibly the last film from Studio Ghibli that will ever have a cinematic run on these shores, we couldn’t have asked for a greater send off to studio that has itself brought so much beauty and joy into the world. In cinemas 27 March 2015. Watch the trailer here.

Stephen Murphy

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