So, Studio Ghibli is no more. For the moment anyway – both of the old masters have hung up their paint brushes for good, intent on indulging other pursuits, or so they say. Neither has yet found a suitable apprentice to succeed them and so all Ghibli’s revels are now ended, the staff is broken, the book is burned and it’s time we all went home. We’ve not quite set them free yet though, 2014 saw both the founders release their “final masterpiece” in a pattern that was intended to mimic their early success – the double header of the gently melancholic yet uplifting My Neighbour Totoro and the utterly devastating Grave of the Fireflies. Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises read like a deeply moving final poem – a artist’s apology for his failings as man. Takahata’s, in a pattern reminiscent of his career overall, feels in some ways harsher. He pushes deeper both artistically but also emotionally, less cynical but also perhaps less forgiving. Based on the classic Japanese folktale by the same title, often translated into English as The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is another late career masterwork from Takahata that cuts right to the quick of what it means to be human.
Bamboo cutter Okina makes his everyday journey up the mountain to cut bamboo, but this time finds a single stalk shining strangely. When he cuts into it, a tiny yet elegant lady is sleeping inside. Quickly realising she must be a princess sent from heaven, he carries her home to his wife in whose hands she suddenly morphs into a screaming human child. The couple embrace their miraculous gift heartily and raise the girl as if she were their own. “L’il Bamboo” as the other village kids call her, grows at an alarming rate, but enjoys an idyllic country childhood full of long hot summers, juicy, ripe melons pinched from a neighbour’s garden and fantastic adventures. However, another shining bamboo stalk has yet more presents for Okina in the form of gold and expensive kimonos. Believing his little princess is intended for the life of a noble woman, not that of the lowly daughter of a bamboo cutter, he buys a big house in the city filled with teachers and servants. However, one person’s idea of “best” can be quite different from another’s, and no matter how much you love someone, there are lines that cannot be crossed.
Li’l Bamboo is an elemental creature, meant for frolicking with frogs and dancing under cherry blossoms but Princess Kaguya, the name given to her by a nobleman as she comes of age, is forced into the constrained life of a court lady. Imprisoned inside her castle, separated from her childhood friends and confined to a life of sedately studying “the feminine arts” Kaguya’s once wild love of life seems to dissipate under the weight of adulthood. Even on a rare (and secret) journey outside to once again view the transient cherry blossoms, she decides to return almost immediately after encountering a mother and her children who rapidly kneel, apologise for their presence and leave. Feeling the ever present barrier between herself and “ordinary” people because of her fine clothes and appearance, Kaguya retreats despondently. However, as relative “new money” to the noble set, she doesn’t fit in there either.
The life that Okina envisages for his “princess” maybe one that society regards as better, but that isn’t to say it’s the best for everyone. Okina’s tragedy is that he never stops to consider his adopted daughter’s own feelings. The responsibility he takes is too great and he never sees that he’s stifling the gift nature has given him. Kaguya goes along with most of this because he’s her father and she doesn’t want to displease him, but she’s constantly setting free caged animals because she herself feels so imprisoned. Okina’s desire to ensure his daughter’s future happiness has only made her miserable and in the end will cost them both dearly. As common now as it’s ever been, this classic miscommunication between parent and child is made all the more tragic because it has love at its core.
Unfolding like an illustrated scroll, Princess Kaguya is full of beautiful and imaginative artistry. With its beguiling watercolour-like aesthetic, the film often breaks into breathtaking, impressionistic spectacle that can allow a girl to dissolve into the landscape or summon dragons from the clouds and waves. It’s a style that’s perfectly suited to the classic nature of the story which is only aided by the traditional, folk-tale narration and whimsical score from Joe Hisaishi (working with Takahata here for the first time despite his long association with Studio Ghibli as a whole).
A fitting end to a long and sometimes difficult career, Princess Kaguya is, in the end, a tale of sad yet inevitable partings. Still, though Kaguya was often unhappy on Earth, ultimately she doesn’t want to leave nor to forget her experiences be they of joy or sorrow. Perhaps better appreciated from a perspective of age, Princess Kaguya is a sorrowful tale in many ways, full of misunderstandings and missed opportunities yet there is great beauty in it too. All things must pass, and we must bid goodbye to Studio Ghibli (for now, at least) though painful as it may be, we ought to be grateful for having had something to grieve.