** DISCLAIMER: I saw the Japanese version with English subtitles so I can’t comment on the English dub version that is also out **
I like to think of animation as art. While I am fine with some of the big budget studio effort that are out there also, there is also something so freeing and inspiring with seeing a great animated film that uses the format to the best of its ability by taking the style and using to not only to make the film look beautiful, but also become a part of the story.
This is usually the case with most films from the Japanese animation studio, Studio Ghibli, but I’m not sure another film is able to utilize the artwork like their latest movie, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and its director, Isao Takahata, were able to.
In a style that looks completely unique from the other efforts from the studio such as Spirited Away and most recently The Wind Rises, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is able to hone the almost storybook like style that is used and make it a character amongst the story as the director uses this aesthetic to move and shift the landscape as if within the pages of a book.
The film tells the story of Princess Kaguya, who is first seen as a baby sent from heaven and found by the Bamboo Cutter in a bamboo stalk. The Bamboo Cutter brings the infant down to his wife who immediately accepts her as part of the family. The cutter determines that the baby is a gift sent from the heavens and he makes it his life’s goal to give her the princess lifestyle that she was destined for.
But that doesn’t come immediately as the family continues to live as bamboo cutters in the country. Kaguya grows up fast and sparks the interest of the local children who enjoy her resilient spirit. They bring her in as part of their group with the oldest boy, Sutemaru, taking her under his wing and showing her how to have fun in the country, which includes chasing pheasants and climbing up the mountains in the area.
This life doesn’t last long as while she finds peace in the country, her father is working to secure them a spot in the capital’s nobility. This culminates in one day when she returns from a day with Sutemaru to find her parents ready to leave and head to their new home in the capital. This leads to Kaguya’s transformation into a princess and the trails that are included in that rank.
Kaguya is a prototypical Ghibli female protagonist as she is free-spirited and curious, but also is as sharp as a whip and tries furiously to decide her own fate even when the multiple suitors and her own father try to push what they believe is best on her. She also is inspiring as a character who finds peace in the simple joys of life, but is thrust into large responsibilities only to reject them and find a way to still find happiness even when she is unhappy within the walls of this new mansion.
But where The Tale of the Princess Kaguya soars is in its unique animation style, which keeps with Ghibli’s usual hand drawn animation, but changes the character and landscape style to look as if it came off of a storybook or some cultural icon.
The defining scene takes place during a banquet for Kaguya at her new mansion. She is prepared in her full princess attire and sits behind a bamboo wall as the guests of the three day and three night party eat, drink, and talk about seeing this mysterious princess. As a few of the guests talk down on Kaguya and her father who didn’t come from noble birth, she bursts from the wall to the back of the house in a scene that feels like an artist just sketching the figures onto the canvas.
The scene has Kaguya flying through the mansion and breaking walls and moves her outside where she bursts down the countryside and is like a blur amongst the thinly painted trees and houses that she passes.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is something special and it is refreshing to see an animated film both tell an emotional story, and use the animation style to its best advantage. While I wouldn’t expect anything less from Studio Ghibli, it was eye-opening to see the studio push the boundaries and even go for an new style that looks nothing like the one that made the company famous and still tell a story that ranks up with the other classics.