Friday, 10 April 2015

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The above Japanese animation from the wonderful folk at Studio Ghibli was one of the nominations for best animated feature at the Academy Awards earlier this year -- and no it did not win, despite a host of eager fans. The favourite for the award was "How to Train Your Dragon" Mark Two, which on the night lost out to "Big Hero 6". Despite its many virtues which I will touch upon below, I am not in the least surprised at Kaguya's loss to more 'child-friendly' films. If the truth be known its appeal is fated to be more for aesthetically minded adults.

Running 137 minutes and best seen in its subtitled original Japanese language version, it's not really kiddies' fare, even when American-dubbed. This film was a labour of love for its director Isao Takahata, who has announced that it will be his last movie. Together with the genius animator Hayao Miyazaki, who has also announced his retirement, they founded Ghibli way back when and between them produced a mind-blowing body of work.

This movie took eight years to reach the screen and since he is not himself an animator, Takahata farmed out part of the animation work to some nine other studios. Based on Japan's oldest folk tale, the 10th Century "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter", the film faithfully relates the story of the poor woodcutter of the title finding a miniature babe in a suddenly sprouting bamboo stalk and taking her home to be raised by him and his barren wife (who suddenly develops bounteous milk-filled breasts!). He decides that the child is a gift from God, and as the infant grows at a prodigious rate, he decides that she is really a Princess, especially when he next finds a hoard of gold coins growing in his bamboo orchard. So off he goes to the City to build a palace suitable for the pampered princess that she is apparently meant to be.

Despite the impoverished lifestyle in the shack where she is being raised, the young girl finds joy in playing with the neighbourhood kids who call her 'Little Bamboo' and in appreciating the beauties of nature that surround her. Reluctantly she is snatched away from this simple life to a sheltered but opulent environment where a 'Lady of the Court' attempts to mentor her into becoming a high-class potential trophy and to force her to abandon her natural exuberance. Now fully mature after a relatively short period, word of her beauty spreads and potential suitors storm the mansion. She sends them all away with far-fetched tasks, vowing to only marry the one who can provide her with the impossible. Even the Emperor himself is rebuffed.

However she begins to pine at the futility of the life that her 'parents' (particularly her status-seeking 'father') have thrust upon her; she comes to realise that her true home is the moon, her days on earth numbered. She daydreams of running off with her long-lost childhood sweetheart (despite his having a very tangible wife and child of his own), but comes to accept the fate that destiny has decided upon, even if it means forgetting all the wonders she has experienced. In the film's emphasis on a strong-minded female protagonist with a great love of nature, the movie shares common themes with some of Takahata's earlier works like "Only Yesterday" and "Grave of the Fireflies".

What makes this film unique however is the quality of the hand-drawn animation. All of the backgrounds are so tenderly rendered in the pastel tones of Japanese water-colours, that one feels like one has wandered into a sea of classic ink-and-brush art. The movie is breathtakingly beautiful, hence its many adherents. Only the chunky rendering of the human figures lets the side down. It was this that I least liked about Takahata's previous film "My Neighbours the Yamadas" (1999). His style of animation may indeed be inspired, but I personally prefer the lush, rich colours and solidity of the Miyazaki movies. Alas we must now live without the output of these two influential directors, but I am sure their legacy will live on. The spirit can not be nourished by CGI alone!   

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