Studio Ghibli have made their reputation with bittersweet tales of love, loss, and human frailty. The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya is the latest and possibly the last oeuvre from one of Studio’s founding fathers – Isao Takahata. But don’t believe those who tell you that no one makes films like this anymore. Truth is, no one ever made films like this before.
The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya is based on a Medieval Japanese folk tale, in which a Moon princess descends to Earth to experience life in all its rich and bewildering glory. Adopted by a bamboo cutter and his wife, the princess enjoys an idyllic childhood, amidst watercolour fields, and inky forests. Convinced that his daughter must move to the city in order to have a life befitting her status, the young princess becomes trapped in a world of fakery and snobbery and the tale takes on a darker, melancholic tone.
There’s no doubt that children love Ghibli, but Kaguya is perhaps it’s most adult film to date, in both theme and execution. The tale unfolds with unhurried pace that those raised on the more frenetic Disney fare may find hard to handle. This is, in many ways, a film for world-weary souls, in need of a little spiritual battery charging.
In fact, Princess Kaguya is more than just an ode to joy and youthful innocence, it’s also a film about Studio Ghibli and, perhaps Takahata himself. In recent years it may have seemed that Ghibli had succumbed to the pressure to produce films with a more marketable ‘universal’ appeal. Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle certainly did business – and won the awards – on the international stage. But there’s always been something irrepressibly parochial about Ghibli. Like Princess Kaguya herself, Ghibli may have learnt how to look the part but at heart they’ve remained fiercely independent, always ready to throw off those formal robes and run barefoot in the mud. The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya is everything that Ghibli should be. Elegant, elegiac, breathtakingly beautiful and unashamedly Japanese.
Takahata’s first film for Ghibli was Grave Of The Fireflies – an achingly sad tale of childhood and the triumph of the human spirit set in Japan at the end of World War II. Thirty years on and Takahata’s last, bold film closes the circle.