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Immersed in Movies: Isao Takahata Talks ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’ Swan Song

Immersed in Movies: Isao Takahata Talks 'The Tale of the Princess Kaguya' Swan Song

After taking the LA and Boston Film Critics awards for best animated feature and grabbing three Annie nominations (feature, direction, and score by Joe Hisaishi), there’s definite Oscar momentum for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (released by Gkids). There’s additional incentive in that it’s likely Studio Ghibli’s final masterpiece given that the anime powerhouse is ceasing further feature production. It’s also the swan song for co-founder Isao Takahata (his first movie in 15 years). We discussed by email his inspiration, the stunning charcoal and watercolor design, and what resonates emotionally for him.

Bill Desowitz: Tell us about the importance of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter for Japanese culture and for you personally. Did you read it as a child? What resonates for you as an adult? It’s certainly timeless as a rich yet tragic rite of passage story for girls who have difficulty meeting the expectations of their parents and being true to their own desires and abilities. 
Isao Takahata: As all Japanese have, when I was a child, I read the folktale The Princess Kaguya in the condensed version written for children. I thought it was a strange story. In my youth, I read the original The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, which was probably written in the first half of the tenth century. I still thought it was a strange story. It had some humorous parts, and was full of curious aspects to the story, but the heroine’s transformation was enigmatic, and it didn’t evoke any empathy from me. Your question makes me wonder if you are asking about The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter? I thought that you were writing about the film that I have made, and not about the original story. But if watching my film has led to a deeper understanding of the original story, that would be a great honor for me.   
BD: How long have you wanted to make this as a movie? 
IK: Since all Japanese are familiar with The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter and it has fantastical scenes, many plans to turn it into live-action or animation films have been proposed. However, the only one that has been completed was a 1987 live-action film directed by Kon Ichikawa. Around 1960, when Toei Animation Co. was planning an animated version under director Tomu Uchida, I reread the original story. I discovered that this enigmatic story that hadn’t evoked any empathy in me could become an entertaining story that would allow the audience to empathize with the heroine if we could think deeply about why The Princess Kaguya came down to Earth from the Moon and why she had to return, and what her ’sin’ had been as written in the original story. But, as a newly hired employee, my concept was ignored. Fifty years later I have finally been able to realize my concept. (The plan to make the film at Toei Animation foundered and was abandoned. This shows the difficulty of turning the story of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter into a film.)  
BD: This is a tragic rite of passage story that relies on a different aesthetic for you with thick, bold brushstrokes. Let’s discuss the look.
IK: Since making my previous film, My Neighbors the Yamadas, I had no intention of making films using traditional cel animation techniques. In that respect, even if my next film had not been The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, I would have used this visual style. If one wants to show audiences a fantastic world that no one has seen or present strange characters and wants them to believe in that world, one needs to create a specific space, and place within it solid objects rich in shading drawn as intricately as possible. But the aim of the work I wanted to create is different. That world is this one that we know, and the characters who appear in it are normal human beings. And the drama that unfolds there is of the conflicts that occur within normal, everyday life. In other words, it is a world that is very familiar to us. That is why, rather than forcing on audiences the fully drawn details of our world, I want to have viewers recall their memories, stir their imaginations, and gently lead them to yield themselves to a comfortable, familiar world.
Forceful lines, broken lines, quickly colored washes, spaces left unfilled — the purposely incomplete pictures are drawn so that audiences can appreciate the artist’s lively spirit of the moment when rapidly sketching something that is occurring right in front of the painter’s eyes. In order to use this style, it is essential to have gifted artists. It has been my good fortune to work with the wonderfully talented artists Osamu Tanabe and Kazuo Oga in creating this film.      

BD: At 137 minutes, this represents the longest Ghibli feature, but there’s a lot for her to experience. What were the biggest challenges in expanding the story of the Princess?
IK: I aspired to have people empathize with the heroine’s feelings by telling “the true story” of The Princess Kaguya that was not depicted in the original story without significantly changing the plot of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. For that, I needed to have The Princess Kaguya experience the delights of the Earth — what didn’t exist on the Moon — that she had pined for in the span of time from her birth to her adulthood. In the original story she grows from a miniature princess into an adult in just three months, but I had her grow from infancy and prolonged the time frame to just under one year. And during that time, I had her fully enjoy the richness of life on Earth that is filled with color and all sorts of creatures as well as the joy of living and of forming emotional bonds. This effort was difficult for us but also very satisfying to depict. 
BD: What was most difficult but fulfilling for you?
IK: I mentioned my wonderful two collaborators, but a feature animation film lasting over two hours can’t be created by just two gifted artists. The most difficult issue was how to extend their individual drawing styles over the entire film. Despite having been hired on a project basis, the staff that came together for this film gave their all to complete the film, dedicating themselves with unstinting efforts. My heart was filled with gratitude and emotion at the preview screening of the film. 
BD: You’ve discussed retirement but do you have another film you’d like to make? 
IK: I do have a plan for a film that I desire to make, but I am now 79-years-old. If I still have the physical stamina, will, and mental powers left in me, and there are people who will invest in it, a producer who will manage it all, and if I am blessed with the kind of collaborators I had on this project, I would like to make another film. But this would require a miracle, so when I consider whether it is possible or impossible, I think it is more likely to be impossible. 

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