Over the last thirty years, Japan’s Studio Ghibli has introduced audiences to an intricate world of sublime animation and bizarre tales from the creative minds of some of Asia’s finest storytellers. The latest entry into the Ghibli oeuvre is a delightful adaptation of the 10th Century folk story The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, brought to glorious life by seasoned animator and director Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko ).
In rural, feudal Japan, an aging bamboo cutter discovers a tiny princess in the stem of a bamboo cane. Taking her home, he and his wife decide to raise the young girl as their own. Having never been blessed with a child themselves, the couple dote upon their newfound daughter, deciding to leave their rustic life behind to provide her with the lavish lifestyle they believe she deserves. Growing as quickly as the bamboo in which she was found, the young Kaguya soon catches the eye of a stream of wealthy suitors, each set upon winning the heart of the mysterious princess by whatever means they can. Kaguya meanwhile, at one with nature, struggles to adapt to her regal existence, finding comfort in the palace garden and the haunting music that seems to follow her wherever she goes.
A charming array of characters brings the tale to life. The eponymous princess herself is a wonderful combination of almost every Disney princess we`ve come to love, culminating in an unconventional and uniquely timeless heroine. Comic relief meanwhile comes from not only Kaguya`s bumbling suitors, but also from her well-meaning father (Takeo Chii in the original Japanese, and a wonderful James Caan in the English dub), inept and utterly oblivious to his daughter`s true desires.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya marks a grand departure from Ghibli’s recent productions; this is by no means the lavish and often overly-detailed cartoon world of Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle, with director Takahata returning to his subtle and simplistic storytelling roots. The animation is ornate, yet uncomplicated, with washed-out, almost unfinished watercolour backgrounds setting the scene for Kaguya’s luminescent presence. The supporting cast are simply drawn, in a style highly reminiscent of the woodblock art of 18th Century artist Toshusai Sharaku, adding to the periodic atmosphere of Takahata’s re-imagined folktale. Completing the mood of Takahata`s world is Joe Hisaishi`s beautifully evocative score. Played almost entirely on traditional Japanese stringed instruments, the simple yet expressive melodies resonate throughout the piece. Coupled with nursery rhymes sung a cappella by children, this is possibly one of Ghibli`s most understated yet effective soundtracks.
Although perhaps not as iconic or visually innovative as certain other Ghibli productions, it is by far their best fantasy film in over a decade, surpassing the likes of Arrietty and Ponyo with aplomb. It is also a very welcome return to the director`s chair for Isao Takahata, and with Hayao Miyazaki`s recent retirement from the industry, one can only hope that this veteran storyteller will continue to spin his wonderful yarns for many years to come.
Dir: Isao Takahata
Scr: Isao Takahata, Riko Sakaguchi / Mike Jones
Starring: Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii, Nobuko Miyamoto / Chloe Grace Moretz, Darren Criss, James Caan Mary Steenburgen
Prd: Yoshiaki Nishimura, Seiichiro Ujiie / Geoffrey Wexler
DOA: Kazuo Ora
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Run Time: 137mins
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is available on DVD from 13 July 2015.