Magic, Morals, Organic Beauty Blossom In 'Princess Kaguya'

Directed by: Isao Takahata; Runtime: 137 minutes
Grade: B+

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya gathers the elements that hallmark the storied career of Isao Takahata, from the watercolor aesthetic of My Neighbors the Yamadas to the melancholy swell of emotion in Grave of the Fireflies, into one sprawling and meditative piece of artistry that could easily serve as the director's swan song if needed, and likely will be. It's the culmination of a body of work that -- outside of Takahata's consistent, heartrending reflection on the travesties of World War II -- has endured experimental highs and lows while tinkering with the balance between eccentricity and affective drama, where novel story ideas are given unique traits like morphing raccoon testicles and saccharine family minimalism that overshoot their mark. Through Studio Ghibli's faithful rendition of a 10th-century fable, one of Japan's oldest recorded narratives, Isao Takahata distills the successful sides of his prior films into a long-lasting journey through a mystical child's growth from a thumb-sized incarnate into a full-grown noble, whisking together broad fantasy and character intimacy into a charming, meaningful depiction of existential defiance.

Like the original story, "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter", Princess Kaguya buds into life purely through the enigmas of magic: during a woodcutter's exploration of his forest one day, he spots a bamboo shoot brightly glowing from the ground. Closer inspection reveals a tiny adult girl whom he believes to be a princess that he's intended to care for. Once he reaches his wife with the discovery, the tiny person's growth patterns kick into overdrive, morphing into a full-sized baby who undergoes rapid growth spurts before their eyes. She continues to mature far quicker than normal humans throughout her childhood, while the woodcutter discovers other magical gifts bestowed by the bamboo in his forest: the means in which to turn her into a city-dwelling noble, furthering his insistence that it's ordained by higher powers. Eventually, the time comes for the young woman to realize what appears to be her destiny, which would uproot her from a casual, rural lifestyle into one of conformation to aristocratic ideals.

Director Takahata tells the story of the future Princess Kaguya through pastel watercolor-inspired visuals with a distinct hand-drawn texture, unafraid to let portions of the image remain blank around the organic lines and shading of the focal artwork. This isn't reminiscent of the cartoonish exaggerations of The Yamadas, though: the delicateness of the aesthetic succeeds in creating an immersive, genuine atmosphere around the maturation of the young girl, paired with the recognizable eyes and jawlines of Studio Ghibli's more grounded characterizations. While it's a stunning creative realization that harkens back to historic Japanese works of art, the peacefulness of the soft pastels -- paired with the elongated aims of the simple story -- occasionally pacify the film's tempo too much across its two-plus hour span, demanding patience and alertness while marveling at the strokes and subtle use of color. The editing style relishes landscapes and lingers on extended simple dramatic moments, which can be both beautiful and draining to behold depending on one's frame-of-mind.

Discovering more about Princess Kaguya's personality becomes the film's driving force at first, where the magic surrounding her rapid growth into an adolescent is accompanied by her equally-quick development of skills befitting her body's supposed age. Takahata and co-writer Riko Sakaguchi ask the audience to simply roll with the punches of the story's mysticism, never clearly conveying the particulars of the princess' growth -- why it's so fast and when she'll stop -- as she relishes the simplicity of outdoor activities and the camaraderie of friendship with rambunctious boys. Instead, it's about gaining a grasp on what's important to the young girl: the simple, earthy delights that differentiate her from the stuffy nobility she's destined to enter, to which she absorbs as quickly as her growing-up allows. Watching how she appreciates the world around her, as well as the enigmas in how she already seems acclimated to certain things about her new world, create an intriguing vein of mystery around discovering her identity that lingers throughout the film.

Princess Kaguya truly picks up once she's sent off to live at the capital to become the film's namesake, when she's confronted with the rigid atmosphere of aristocratic life away from the relaxed freedom of home. Once she arrives, director Takahata draws out themes of resistance to the constraints put on the newly-crowned noblewoman, playing with familiar ideas built around breaking gender and societal roles as she endures the vigors of transforming into a Japanese aristocrat: changing appearance, playing music, and selecting a suitor. A downhearted tone takes over once Princess Kaguya adjusts to the notion that she's permanently detached from her pastoral existence, smartly conveying points about the prices paid for individuality and materialism that are relevant no matter the time period. It's also here that the film's visual lyricism becomes its most poignant, notably in a stunning sequence featuring Kaguya as she flees from the city and into the woods, where colorful robes blur into an abstract clustering of black and white branches.

For a while, the mysticism of Princess Kaguya settles into the background as she distances from her rustic lifestyle and lays out unobtainable goals for her suitors, the men whose pursuit of her beauty and poise seem to be the only avenue for her perceived worth as a noblewoman. Alas, the film would be remiss without touching on the real purpose behind her emergence from the bamboo stalk, to which the tale's mystical streak comes back with a vengeance, delivering a tragic philosophical message about its themes that feels entirely at-home in the hands of the director of Grave of the Fireflies. While the grand design of the film's magical foundation seems fickle for the sake of expressing a moral, it's difficult to deny the poignancy that descends on Kaguya amid her struggle with the purpose behind her existence, ending in a marvelously sorrowful display of imagery that stays faithful to the original story's intentions. With that, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya becomes an elegiac experience not unlike viewing one of the historical tapestries rolled out before the young princess in her own story.

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