‘The uniquely Japanese concept of wabi-sabi comes to mind’ in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, says MacDara Conroy
He might not be as fêted as Hayao Miyazaki, but there would be no Studio Ghibli as we know it without its co-founder Isao Takahata. Miayzaki’s regular creative partner for the best part of five decades, starting long before the Ghibli banner and the films that put anime on the world cinematic map, Takahata is the New Wave auteur in contrast to his colleague’s more Spielbergian notions. It’s the latter’s fantasy films and their international success – My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away – that made the Studio Ghibli brand. But it’s Takahata’s features – by and large more grounded in reality, in all its messiness – that may have contributed in greater part to making Japanese animation a serious concern in the west. In spite of their many years working together, their differences could not be more apparent than in the films their then-nascent studio released on 16 April 1988: Miyazaki’s Totoro is a playful fantasy about woodland spirits in post-war Japan, but Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies is a harrowing neorealistic vision of the horrors of that very war as wrought on society’s innocents.
But that’s not to paint Takahata as ‘the serious one’ as opposed to Miyazaki’s flights of fancy, for even the latter’s most outlandish stories carry deeper messages – and of course his final film, The Wind Rises, is a historical drama with only a hint of magical realism. As versatile a director as his studio partner, Takahata should also be known for his own tanuki fantasy Pom Poko, pastoral romantic drama Only Yesterday and the roughly hewn sketches of family life in My Neighbours the Yamadas, all of which inform to varying degrees the near-octogenarian’s latest production, and a film some eight years in the making, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
Adapted from a 10th-century Japanese folktale about an old bamboo cutter who chances upon a magical baby in the forest, believes her a gift sent from the heavens, and raises her with his wife into nobility, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no Monogatari in Japan) borrows from the hand-drawn aesthetic of Yamadas with its exquisite watercolour renderings of rural beauty, presumably all done on computers like its predecessor but no less crafted. The young Kaguya, named ‘Takenoko’ (‘Li’l Bamboo’) by her friends, grows up at an astounding rate amid a vivid landscape of “bugs, birds, beasts… grass, tress, flowers” as per the melancholy-tinged nursery rhyme that recurs throughout. Visually and emotively, it’s one of Studio Ghibli’s finest. It’s a film full of sweeping strokes and expressive colour, but in muted pastel tones that reflect its main theme of the transience of life in all its imperfection. As does Joe Hisaishi’s score, with its plaintive koto instrumentals that pluck at the heartstrings. The uniquely Japanese concept of wabi-sabi comes to mind.
But Takahata – a consummate filmmaker, not an animator in the traditional sense – also uses the story to comment on social issues pertinent to the modern day, most of all the remnants of Japan’s ancient caste system that persisted in the country’s transformative post-war ‘economic miracle’, as seen in the bamboo cutter’s determination to rise above his station at the cost of his own heavenly gift. And the place and agency of women in a patriarchal society, as Kaguya rankles at the submissive deportment and blackened teeth that constitute ‘being a lady’ in the noble realm. She also rankles at the notion that happiness can be derived from wealth or status, as her father believes, or perfection absent impurities such as disappointment or grief, or even dirt on your knees, as she learns upon realising her true origins. That these revelations draw the film towards a distressing, bittersweet end is a foregone conclusion. That it will linger long in the mind and in the heart is just as certain.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya opens at the IFI and the Light House Cinema on March 27th in both subtitled (as reviewed) and dubbed versions