The latest Ghibli film to be released in the US, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is an enchanting adaptation of a 10th century proto-scifi Japanese folk story The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, directed by Isao Takahata, the 78 year old co-founder of the studio. Cinematically stunning, the 137-minute film is done entirely in a minimal watercolor and charcoal style reminiscent of traditional Japanese painting, refreshing different from most traditional cel and computer animation. While not as tear-jerking and heart-crushing as The Grave of the Fireflies (one of the saddest anime ever made and the film Takahata’s best known for), Kaguya is nonetheless deeply moving in a more subtle, mature way.
The story begins with a supernatural birth, when an old bamboo cutter finds a glowing baby inside one of the chutes. He and his wife adopt the child, who grows up rapidly to the amazement of the couple and the neighborhood children, who all call her Kaguya or “little bamboo.” While Kaguya’s accelerated childhood is peaceful and idyllic, marked by miraculous gifts that appear in the bamboo grove, the step-father is convinced that she is a princess, and as such belongs in the royal court. So, just as Kaguya starts developing feelings for a local boy, she is suddenly whisked away to the capital. Much of the second act is about her adaptation to court life, where her wild nature frustrates her courtesan tutor, while simultaneously breathing new life into the stuffy palace halls. One of the most amusing parts is when Kaguya is courted by five suitors who each declare their love through inflated poetic metaphor (revering her more than the Buddha’s begging bowl or a mythic golden tree with silver leaves, etc). Recognizing the empty nature of their claims, Kaguya says that whoever can bring her the object they compared her to, would get her hand in marriage, and both hilarity and tragedy ensue.
Trying to avoid further spoilers, the film does take a much more serious turn into the third act, as palace pressures and sexual tension make Kaguya resent ‘civilized’ life. There are also some beautiful reflections on memory, as she remembers her youth, discovers her origin, and later realizes what she’ll have to choose to forget. The ending is especially unusual for Western viewers, but recalls Takahata’s Pom Poko (1994) in its processional splendor. While suitable for all ages, the film has many adult undercurrents and deep philosophical insights, similar to those of Deleuze and Guattari. The rhizome/tree especially, as bamboo is a rhizome, which grows rapidly in every direction, like Kaguya herself. Meanwhile, her life at court is fundamentally arborescent, as social pressure from all sides insists that she plant roots by choosing a husband. The corollary poles of nomadic life and the sedentary State are also there when we learn that Kaguya’s childhood friends had been gone from their village for ten years to allow ecosystem there to replenish itself. Lastly, the whole movement of the story could be seen as a territorialization, deterritorialization, and reterritorialization, which (like a double-negative) is not the same as coming back to the starting point, you can’t step into the same bamboo grove twice.
Originally, Kaguya was to be released with Hayao Miyazaki’s final film The Wind Rises, which would be the first time he and Takahata put out a double feature since My Neighbor Totoro/Grave of the Fireflies. Delays made this impossible, and sadly the box-office flop of Kaguya ($49.3 million production, $24.5 million box office) has forced Studio Ghibli into a hiatus. But great art is seldom marketable, and the masterful Kaguya is a proper ending to Takahata’s prolific career.