Review: The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Takahata, 2013)

Studio Ghibli’s latest film The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a stunning fantasy told with an effortless and enchanting beauty, captured through its impressionistic animation style, that marks a departure from the more familiar feel of Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s works. Based on a 10th-century Japanese folktale, the film blends historical drama with an hugely relevant modern sentiment.

Like the best tales of fantasy, Princess Kaguya begins with the genesis of its titular character, who is also known by the nickname ‘Little Bamboo’. The young princess is discovered by her soon-to-be adoptive father, a bamboo cutter called Sanuki no Miyatsuko, who finds the girl as a tiny human-like creature in a bamboo shoot. Taking her home to his wife, Miyatsuko believes the girl is a divine gift from the heavens and immediately envisions raising her as a princess. Strangely, the young girl quickly begins to grow at a phenomenal rate, morphing into a small child and then later a young woman in a very small amount of time. At first she lives a simple life, freely playing with the other children in her family’s rural village where she swims, hunts and passes each day without a care in the world. However, Miyatsuko soon fulfils his desire to see his daughter become a respectable and noble princess by uprooting both his wife and child from the country to the city, where he has purchased a mansion with the gold he found close to where his daughter was discovered. Here, Little Bamboo is given the formal title of ‘Princess Kaguya’ and she begins her formal training under the instruction of an overbearing governess. Despite her own wishes, Princess Kaguya is thrown into a world in which her primary goal is to marry a worthy suitor: a world she has no interest in belonging to. Kaguya, or Little Bamboo, simply wishes to return to the home she left and her friend Sutemaru, who she loves far more than any of the noble men who fight to marry her.

Like The Wind Rises, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is no simple children’s story, but a beautifully rendered epic which grapples with questions of identity and belonging: the desire to be the person you want to be and not defined by custom or upbringing. Alternating between fantasy, historical drama and allegory – all with a captivating streak of humour – Princess Kaguya is simply a joy to watch. Its style of animation, which is based around minimalist sketches and sparse but precise touches of colour, is both extraordinary to experience but also fitting for a story which feels both dreamlike and surreal. As lines and colour fade into the white of the image’s background, it almost feels as if the film is a living, breathing thing unfolding before your eyes. Powerful, visually dazzling and charmingly entertaining, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a film you don’t want to miss seeing on the big screen.

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