The first few beautifully drawn frames of The Tale of Princess Kaguya foretell that no other animation house on Earth could have crafted this work of art other than Studio Ghibli. Classical brushstrokes and nostalgic watercolours sublimate the screen, enduring graphite etches across a bucolic canvas that’s now observably lost in a world where moviemaking studios have CGI’d the whole damn thing. Where the entire animation industry has capitalised on ultra-shiny, hyper-kinetic, sleekly pixellated cornucopia, Isao Takahata beautifully revels on the simplicity of clean, hand-drawn lines, the serene beauty of nature sketched traditionally with pencils and tranquil brushes. He’s essentially given all our retinas a 137-minute holiday and treat us to a visual spa, where our eyes can do no more than luxuriate on the screen and catch a break from all the bombastic, eyesore movies of late.[divider]+[/divider]
The Tale of Princess Kaguya enshrouds a kind of wisdom and sadness rare in animated films. Beneath its visual idyll is a profoundly moving meditation on time, free-will and mortality.[divider]+[/divider]
Yet the beauty of Takahata’s Princess Kaguya isn’t only on surface – it’s skin deep. After all, this is from the director who has made the world’s most uncompromisingly bleak animated film Grave of the Fireflies and one of Studio Ghibli’s most mature, most understated, Ozu-esque work Only Yesterday. Profundity in nature and the quiet hymn of life is something Takahata truly understands like a wisdom guru, and Kaguya enshrouds a kind of wisdom and sadness rare in animated films. Beneath its visual idyll is a profoundly moving meditation on time, free-will and mortality. Its titular protagonist, a mystical, bamboo-borne girl soon proclaimed as a divine royal with untold wealth, eclipses her peers in both rapid, physical growth and surprising emotional maturity, moving quickly through time with such bittersweet submission. But like the best of complex heroines, despite having accepted her parents’ ill-advised desires, she quietly defies the social conformity built around her, rebelling against patriarchy by shaking off suitors willfully like a Jane Austen or a Thomas Hardy character.
Like his studio co-founder Mayazaki, Takahata sees grace and divinity in pacifism, but he also sees an inherent sadness and melancholia in yearning for a purer essence of life. Kaguya pines for a lost childhood, of days spent blissfully running on fields, climbing trees and chasing pheasants, so she lives her present life with a sense of detachment that’s saddening. Ultimately, her private suffocation becomes unbearable that when the princess runs away from her palatial fortress, Takahata and his band of animators fiercely abandoned all brushes and visually scrawls a visual cri do coeur with angry, dark charcoal and forceful graphite. Rarely does the medium of hand-drawn animation convey such heartbreaking, emotional poetry in motion. This scene alone is one of year’s most unforgettable coup de cinéma.
Despite the film moving into allegorical narrative in its final moments (there’s an extra-terrestrial abduction involving moon people that would challenge any dyed-in-the-wool Miyazaki fans of the fantastic), Princess Kaguya never loses any of its emotional impact. There are plenty of shattering moments in the Ghibli canon, but perhaps rarely as devastating as the finale of Kaguya’s fate. Life on Earth has its myriad cruelties, but even the briefest of joys make it a worthwhile experience. Here is a woman whose wisdom and melancholy comes from a deeper place, where there’s an understanding that life eventually ends. If the film’s ending doesn’t make you feel like a better, wiser human being, then you’d need to seriously re-evaluate your living. This is one of Ghibli’s masterworks and the most philosophically inclined.