With its delicate lines, understated palette and exquisite
water color backgrounds, Isao Takahata’s The
Tale of Princess Kaguya ranks among the loveliest animated features of
recent years. The film is based on “The
Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” a Japanese folk story so old, the 11th century novel “The Tale of Genji” cites
it as “the ancestor of all romances.”
One day, Sanuki no Miyatsuko, a gentle old man who cuts
bamboo to make into utensils, finds a tiny infant concealed in a bamboo shoot.
He and his more level-headed wife lovingly care for the baby, who quickly grows
into a young beauty. Using the gold he found in another bamboo shoot, Sanuki
moves his family to the capitol. He’s convinced the girl is a princess who
needs a formal name–Princess Kaguya (“Bamboo Princess”)–and a noble husband.
But Kaguya hates the mannered, artificial life of a
noblewoman of the Heian period (794-1185 C.E.). She rebels against the tutoring
of Lady Sagami, who attempts to teach her to walk, stand and sit formally, and to
pluck her eyebrows and blacken her teeth (which was fashionable at the time).
Instead of the simple cotton clothes that allowed her to run and climb in her
native hamlet, she’s weighted down in layers of silk and brocade kimonos. She also
misses Sutemaru, a character Takahata added to the story. A handsome,
good-natured young peasant, he and Kaguya shared adventures and friendship in
their rural village.
Although she fulfills her adopted father’s dream by
attracting noble suitors, Kaguya rejects their offers of marriage, recognizing
the flawed characters their exquisite manners conceal. Despite the efforts of
Sanuki and the other mortals, Kaguya must eventually fulfill her destiny by returning
to her true home, the moon. In the court of the Moon King, she will forget
everyone and everything she knew on Earth.
The Tale of Princess
Kaguya is a ravishingly beautiful film. The characters, who look like they
were drawn with traditional ink brushes, are colored in delicate pastels. Instead
of hyper realistic CG landscapes or fully realized paintings, the backgrounds
suggest minimal watercolor sketches. A small of area of lavender may suggest
the crest of a distant mountain or the petals of a flower, framed by empty
Like the other recent Studio Ghibli features, the animation
is more polished than most Japanese films. Kaguya initially moves with the
delightful clumsiness of a real infant. But as she learns aristocratic
postures, she subtly swings her long sleeves to keep the layers of fabric
correctly positioned. The grace of the animation makes the news about
restructuring at Ghibli all the more worrisome: to break up the talented crew they’ve
assembled would be a loss to the Studio and to the art of animation.
moves at a deliberate pace, very different from the whizz-bang tempo of
American animation. Takahata breaks that measured rhythm once: When her frustration
with the formal sterility of urban life overcomes her, Kaguya escapes to the village
where she grew up, leaving a trail of torn finery in her wake. The animation is
rougher, faster and more dynamic, reflecting the wretched Kaguya’s sense of
imprisonment. Like a real-time gesture in a hypnotically slow Noh play, the
escape sequence seems more exciting in contrast to the quieter movements
US audiences may grow impatient with the stately rhythm of The Tale
of Princess Kaguya. But viewers who accept the film on its own terms will
enjoy a rewarding viewing experience that reminds them just how protean and
beautiful the art of animation can be.