Though many are aware of Studio Ghibli and its famous founder Hayao Miyazaki, there are many of you who might not realize that Studio Ghibli had another co-founder named Isao Takahata. Unlike Miyazaki, Takahata is not an animator nor did he ever intend to get into the animation business. A little curiosity in the art form brought him into the field almost like a divine accident and the man has directed animated films that are so different from everything else out there that they can be hard to explain to the outside observer. “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is likely to be his most polarizing film since “Pom Poko,” yet this film has something that many of his other films are not known for: Undeniable beauty! I don’t normally make it a point to mention how important visuals are to a movie before commenting on the film itself, but this is one of the films strongest aspects.
Even if you are like me and skip movie trailers to insure you are surprised, one look at the poster and you will see a picture that looks like a beautiful painting that you would hang on your wall for all to admire. Imagine a whole movie that looks like that? A whole movie that feels like an artistic triumph brought to life before your very eyes. Now, imagine having the privilege to spend two hours in that world, soaking it all in until the end, yearning for more as the last frames shimmer on the silver screen? That is the kind of visual powerhouse that Takahata has created. With some rough pencil sketches, water color paints, and what looks to be crayons in a few scenes, he has created the most beautiful looking film I’ve seen in the last five years, animation or otherwise. And it’s all used to tell a complicated fairy tale to boot!
In this case the story is based off an old Japanese folklore of the Bamboo Girl Kaguya, who was cut out of a bamboo stick in the forest by an old man and raised to be royalty. Though I can attest to how accurate the movie is to the folklore, chances are most audience in the West seeing this movie will be unfamiliar with the story, and this will be their first exposure to it. I envy those people, as they are about to see a heartfelt movie about a girl becoming a woman in a great world in terrible circumstances. A girl who is born into poverty and winds up in a palace envied by princes and kings. They are going to witness a life that should be living more carefree and fun, yet instead ends up a prisoner in her own life she was raised in.
For the most part this feels like a movie Disney would have made at some point. They likely would have made a good movie, but they would make changes that would undoubtly have diluted the message. For the most part this is a joyous film to watch that brought so many smiles to my face I lost count. Like most fairy tales though there is a lesson to be learned, and most lessons have to be learned the hard way. I have no doubt parents will have to explain to some of their kids why Princess Kaguya ends up in the place she does. Some parents might not know what to say. The movie is a little coy in why things wind up where they do, but I feel that if someone pays attention to the film as a whole instead of texting on their phone the point will be so clear it’ll be as if it’s being shouted at you.
Though movies like this should not be judged like they are to be a perfect jewel there is, I’m sorry to say, some pacing problems at various points in the film. One area where Takahata has always struggled with is cutting excessive scenes that might not contribute much to the flow of the story. There’s only so much atmosphere to establish at the hour mark, and the two plus hour running time seems very unnecessary when all is said and done. That aside, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is an instant masterpiece. This is a movie that can be simultaneously enjoyed as great entertainment as it can be appreciated as a great work of art. It shows that mature family storytelling is not a dead art form and it shows us something that computers would have a much difficult time creating. This is a movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen at all costs. If the closest theater showing this is an hour away drive there. For only in the theaters can this films beauty truly shine.