By Alan Mattli
While Hayao Miyazaki, creator of such fantastical animated tales like Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, or Spirited Away, embraces a more realistic approach in The Wind Rises, the deeply moving Jiro Horikoshi biopic rumoured to be his last foray into filmmaking, his Studio Ghibli colleague Isao Takahata professes a somewhat uncharacteristic penchant for fantasia in his latest work. Known for his naturalistic style honed in films like Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, and My Neighbors the Yamadas, which have rightfully drawn comparison to Yasujiro Ozu, Takahata seems to abandon his more contemporary preoccupations in The Tale of Princess Kaguya, favouring instead a narrative relying heavily on Japanese mythology.
But just as Miyazaki’s film is punctured by scenes of dreamlike reverie, Takahata’s adaptation of Japan’s oldest extant narrative – a 10th century folktale entitled The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, which was turned into a film in 1987 (starring Toshiro Mifune) by Kon Ichikawa, who hails from the same town as Takahata – is at once an utterly enchanting fairytale and an engagingly critical reading of the paternalistic, anti-individualistic rationale of such myths. It is the successful balancing of these two aspects that makes The Tale of Princess Kaguya one of the best movies of the year.
The subversion is already hinted at by the title: the Bamboo Cutter gives way to Princess Kaguya; the story, from the very outset, ceases to take a male perspective. Accordingly, it is Ōna (voiced by Nobuko Miyamoto), the wife of the bamboo cutter Okina (Takeo Chii), who serves as the narrator here, relating the story of how her husband finds a tiny, elegantly dressed girl at the centre of a bamboo plant one day, which the two then raise as their own in their idyllic bamboo forest. After a few years, they move to the capital city, where the reluctant girl (Aki Asakura), later named Kaguya, whom Okina takes to be a divine princess, is taught the customs befitting someone of her class.
What is critiqued in this touching yet often hilarious film is the implicitness with which fairytales put divine plans, fatherly decrees and – primarily female – deference bordering on self-neglect on their respective pedestals. Takahata and co-writer Riko Sakaguchi cannily reconfigure the millennium-old source material, whilst staying remarkably true to it, to question the notion that renouncements of earthly concerns and heavenly ascensions really are the happiest of endings. The attempt to stifle Kaguya’s vivacity is not portrayed, as is traditionally the case, as a maturing rite of passage but as detached, ultimately groundless prescription. The politics of love, too, are turned on their head, as the original tale’s romantic hero – the Mikado himself – is turned into a buffoonish would-be womaniser, who, following a string of unlucky, and uproariously funny, suitors (one of them apparently modelled on Toshiro Mifune), is promptly rejected by the heroine, who instead yearns for a boy from her childhood village.
Thus, critique seamlessly moves into bittersweet poetry, as The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which boasts a staggeringly beautiful watercolour aesthetic that proves just as pleasing to behold as Ghibli’s trademark visual realism, progresses from its heartwarming vignettes of bucolic country life towards Kaguya’s borderline absurd obligation-laden existence as a coveted princess. There are moments of sublime truth strewn throughout this magnificent gem of a film, such as the scene in which a distressed Kaguya flees the city and returns to her home, only to discover that her parents’ house has been taken over by another family. In just a few shots, carried to perfection by Joe Hisaishi’s fitting score, the film manages to capture the elating feeling of childhood remembered as well as the inescapable sadness of the knowledge that the past will forever remain the past. 26 years after the release of Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata, quite simply, has crafted another masterpiece.
★★★★★★ (out of six)
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.