Today: May 26, 2024

Isao Takahata On The Tale Of Princess Kaguya

As Studio Ghibli’s fabulous The Tale of Princess Kaguya comes to DVD, we chatted to the studio’s co-founder about his latest – and potentially last work – for Japan’s great anime company.

Did you ever expect Japanese anime to have the global appeal it now does?
No, I had no idea that Japanese animation would have such a global appeal. Toei Animation was established with the thought that, unlike live-action films, feature animation films had international appeal and should be able to do business abroad. Despite this, those involved in animation work in Japan were making films thinking only about those close to them or their children. Even after they started making TV animation, I think they hardly ever thought about the outside world or overseas markets. In my own case, while I had a strong interest in European, American, and the world’s diverse cultures, in fact I have not once made a film hoping that it would be seen abroad. This is true as well for The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya.” Of course, I am very happy that people abroad are able to see the film and that it is well-received.

Is Princess Kaguya’s animation style about getting back to the purity of a simple brush-stroke, to make it look as though you’re sketching a moment as it unfolds?
It is just as you say. With the advances in 3D, animation films are increasingly going in the direction toward live-action style images. Yet, rather than drawing in every detail and depicting something as if the real thing were there, paintings inherently have the great power to stir up the viewer’s vivid imagination and memory when the brush is used sparingly to give an impression of the real thing. I chose this style because I didn’t want people to forget this. The lines drawn here are not just the contours of the real things, but rather ways to instantaneously capture the expression of those things. And if there is movement, then they are the “pictures” that vividly capture the force of the movement. This technique of giving expression to the line and leaving blank spaces so that the entire surface of the painting is not filled, which engages the viewer’s imagination, is one that holds an important place not only in traditional paintings of China and Japan, but also in sketches in Western drawings. What I have done is to attempt to bring this technique to animation.

How important was My Neighbours The Yamadas in establishing the style of Princess Kaguya? Did it serve as a proving ground for the techniques you’d use in the film?
If one wants to depict a world that no one has seen, and have strange characters act within that world, one needs to create a space with shading and coloration that look as real as possible. This is necessary for people to believe in that fantasy. But My Neighbours The Yamadas concerns a very ordinary reality. Rather than depict that as a virtual reality, I thought it would be better to make the drawings simple to encourage the viewer to see what is behind what is real. My idea was that the viewers could have their imagination and memory stirred to feel the reality of people and things behind the screen in the unfinished drawings shown by lines that are broken or vigorous, spaces left blank, and unsteady movements. This was my intent more than the use of animation film technique employing thick or thin lines drawn by pencil or the washed look of coloured pencils.

Unless the all-important drawings are good, this intention cannot be achieved. It was Osamu Tanabe, who worked with me on My Neighbours The Yamadas, who took charge of character creation and designed their expressions and actions and worked on the layout and other aspects. The background art with its look of transparency was created by art director Kazuo Oga, who worked with me on Only Yesterday and Pom Poko. The entire staff worked very hard on this film, but it would have been impossible to come up with this expression without these two as the central figures. This film is due to the brilliant abilities of these two.

In many ways, the film is about a young girl forced to grow up very quickly, and strong, vibrant young girls have always been an important part of your work, particularly. What makes youth so appealing to you as a subject?
For over a century, there have been on-going changes in the relations between men and women and in the social standing of women. I have sought to refrain from projecting onto the young girls who are my main characters any “wishful thinking” from the male point of view about how women should behave. Despite being a man, I love vibrant women, not only to fall in love with, but also as human beings and as friends. I also like to put myself in a women’s position as much as I can and think about things even though I am a man.

How important was it to make Princess Kaguya a modern as well as sympathetic character? She’s headstrong and independent – a true Ghibli heroine.
I have always made films sympathetic to female characters. I had no interest in presenting this tenth century literary classic as if I were unfurling an old scroll painting. I aspired to follow the original story line rather faithfully, yet revive it in a lively and fresh way to give the story an entirely different impression from the original tale. That is, to narrate the “true story” of the Princess Kaguya that modern people can fully accept. The key to this approach was the concept I had of why the Princess Kaguya, who was from the Moon, came down to Earth.

The result was that the Japanese audience was able to understand the Princess Kaguya’s feelings at different stages of the story, and they were surprised and moved that, rather than being incomprehensible – she had become a person with whom they could empathize. I have faith that my Tale Of The Princess Kaguya represents a very modern sensibility.

I have made many works of animation with young girls as the main characters from even before the founding of Studio Ghibli. This film is part of that flow, but I’m not particularly conscious of there being a Ghibli heroine type.

I’ve read that this is likely to be your final feature film. If this is true, do you think you might turn to a smaller project, like an animated short for the Ghibli Museum, or maybe television, instead?
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.

Of all your film and TV work, of which one are you most proud?
I am fond of all my work, so I can’t name just one. If I did so, I would feel sorry for the others.

What are your feelings on Ghibli’s legacy and reputation?
I’m not sure I can respond in any meaningful way. What Hayao Miyazaki has built up is the greatest contribution. The existence of that thick trunk has allowed leaves to unfurl and flowers to bloom to become the fruitful tree that is Studio Ghibli.

Paula Hammond - Features Editor

Paula Hammond is a full-time, freelance journalist. She regularly writes for more magazines than is healthy and has over 25 books to her credit. When not frantically scribbling, she can be found indulging her passions for film, theatre, cult TV, sci-fi and real ale. If you should spot her in the pub, after five rounds rapid, she’ll be the one in the corner mumbling Ghostbusters quotes and waiting for the transporter to lock on to her signal… Email:

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