The Tale of Princess Kaguya (impressions)

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3 October 2014

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

By Ben Ettinger

I got to see Isao Takahata's latest film on the big screen a week or so ago and wanted to get down some impressions before I forget.

On the surface, Kaguya Hime no Monogatari is a gorgeous film that carries on where My Neighbors The Yamadas left off, doing for ancient Japan what the previous movie did for modern Japan. But deep down, it's more of an enigma.

I've been immersed in Group Tac's Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi for weeks now, so it was inevitable for me to compare the two. This story has in fact been told not only in MNMB but elsewhere in movies and shorts. But the idea to make the movie isn't new. Takahata came up with the original idea for the film way back in the Toei Doga days, and in retrospect it does look like the kind of film that would not have been out of place beside Anju and Zushiomaru and Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon.

Kaguya Hime or The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter as it's alternately known is believed to be Japan's oldest story - it's even referenced in The Tale of Genji. It's known as "the ancestor of stories" in Japan. The story itself, like many folktales, is fantastical and obviously not realistic. Gisaburo Sugii's approach to the conundrums and non-sequiturs of Japan's folktales seemed to be to embrace them, not to try to bridge their logical gaps. The MNMB version of Kaguya Hime (watch), which is directed by Takao Kodama with animation by Masakazu Higuchi and art by Koji Abe, is a truly beautiful rendition of the story, but faithful to the bare-bones original and much more closely stylzed after scroll paintings.

Isao Takahata is a very different filmmaker. His entire ethos towards filmmaking is based on logic. Every element of his films is meticulously conceived to achieve a particular end within the whole. So it was intriguing to wonder how such a filmmaker would not only tackle a story as enigmatic and illogical as Kaguya Hime but turn its brief length into a 2+ hour movie.

Takahata's logical approach produces a curious beast - a folktale that attempts to make up for the inherent illogic of the original story by making its characters as believable as possible, and yet at every moment reminds of you that it is not real.

The uncomfortably weird, if beautifully animated, early segment depicting Kaguya Hime having literal 'growth spurts' is the product of Takahata visualizing what was only a vague sentence in the original story. Myths and folktales are full of stock situations and characters not meant to be taken at face value. MNMB features dozens of stories about childless elderly couples who find a child, or a pot of gold, or a child who turns into a pot of gold, by supernatural agency. By their very nature these stories seem meant to be taken metaphorically, which is at odds with the way this film pedantically fleshes everything out.

On the other hand, this tactic of blending unnatural moments seamlessly into the flow of things harkens back to Pompoko (1994) with its tanuki who switch forms between realistic raccoons, cartoon raccoons and humans, and even further back to Jarinko Chie (1981), with its cats that occasionally get up to walk on their hind legs like humans. If the secret to anime's success is in the blank faces of its static anime characters, which prompt viewers to read the appropriate emotion and hence experience the character's world vicariously, Takahata seems to deliberately push you out of the characters to force you to view them from an objective remove.

In the broad strokes, the movie is surprisingly faithful to the original story. It doesn't cheat by being "based on" the story. It basically just pads it out with a tremendous amount of padding in the form of incredibly beautiful character animation and scenes of natural beauty.

Certain elements of the original story didn't make sense, and the movie fills in the holes as best it can. The movie's key contribution is in explaining the reason why Kaguya Hime was banished to the earth in the first place, something the original story conveniently forgot to explain. It's not like she was sent to save us from our sins. Or maybe it is. The heavenly abode on the moon is interpreted with historical verisimilitude as a Buddhist paradise devoid of the suffering and color and emotion and pleasure. Kaguya Hime's sin was to wonder, an enlightened soul, what it was like on earth. Her punishment was to be sent there in order to experience life firsthand - and to become attached to the people she loved, only to be torn away from them. This simple tweak completely changes the meaning of the story, and turns it into a tragic affirmation the whole complicated mess of human experience, including, love, joy and beauty, but also pain and suffering.

The padding isn't just padding, then. It's the whole point of the movie, both thematically and technically. If the padding gives the ending the requisite weight, having an animator like Osamu Tanabe makes it possible to bring it to life. The whole point of this movie is basically to give Osamu Tanabe something to do. That something is what he does best: create realistic character animation in an unrealistic shell.

I wrote a post about Osamu Tanabe in 2007 in the period after Yamadas, when he was pumping out one wonderful short after the next. It certainly took a lot longer than I was hoping for his next project to appear.

Isao Takahata had apparently been struggling to get Osamu Tanabe excited about a theatrical project around that time. Yoshiyuki Momose had drawn lots of image boards for Grave of the Fireflies, as did Shinji Otuska for Ponpoko, in the pre-production stage, so Takahata was apparently expecting Tanabe to do the same. First he tried with a project based on a Ainu 'Yukar' folktale (Hols was originally conceived based on an Ainu Yukar, and was supposed to be an Ainu story, but Toei Doga didn't allow that, so this was obviously a follow-up), and then for a version of the Tale of the Heike, and then a story called The Birth of the Lullabye about babysitters in pre-war Japan, but to no avail. Only after another producer introduced Tanabe to a 1964 book by Shugoro Yamamoto entitled Yanagibashi Monogatari, a love story set among the lower classes in Edo-period Japan, did he begin drawing. Takahata essentially captured that creative momentum and veered it towards Kaguya Hime.

Even in the early stages of production on Kaguya Hime things didn't go smoothly, as apparently a pilot film was produced that was so avant-garde that they had to start all over and go in a new direction. Takahata has written books about scroll paintings, positing them as the ancestors of animation, so I would love to have seen what Takahata could have done with this story in short form, in a style more closely patterned after scroll paintings. For example this image just begs to be brought to life. Perhaps this pilot went in that direction. All this to say that the film had a protracted pre-production stage, even by the standards of the uncompromising Takahata.

One of the key technical details that helped define the film's visuals was devised by Tanabe: draw everything small and enlarge it. He did this for the characters, and art director Kazuo Oga followed suit with the art. What this did is to create lines whose grain is visible, and produce lots of white space. Kaguya Hime's realism captures the beauty of the natural world in a few quick strokes rather than through overwhelming detail.

Although known as a realistic director, Takahata's wisdom is knowing that merely adding more detail and trying for photorealism isn't the answer. Inspired partly by his encounter with Frederic Back, he has since at least Only Yesterday (1991) been working towards a kind of haiku realism, a realism of omission. This started with the flashback segments of Omohide Poroporo, with their white space that highlighted the superficiality of the moment rather than attempting to deceive the audience with overwhelming verisimilitude, and culminated with his actual haiku in Winter Days (2003). The defining trait of Takahata's work is that it is anti-fantasy, and the fascinating thing is that this comes through loud and clear in this film adaptation of Japan's oldest fantasy.

At the behest of Takahata, Tanabe played a particularly large part in defining the film's animation style as the lead animator, rather than merely as the sakkan there to correct animators' drawings. Animators were instructed to adapt to his style so it could seem like the whole film was animated by Tanabe. The beauty is that you can still identify certain animators' sections (Norio Matsumoto, Shinji Otsuka, Shinji Hashimoto, Hideki Hamasu) through the nature of their movement, but the film overall feels unified in its movement style despite featuring work by many different talented animators.

Shinji Hashimoto's powerful section of Kaguya Hime running was featured in the preview and is indeed the film's animation highlight. He also animated a few other shots of Kaguya Hime spinning around. A spattered brushstroke style was adopted for the running sequence that gives it its impact. This was actually a style originally devised for the climactic battle sequence of The Tale of the Heike, but when that project fell through Takahata adapted it here, indicating how determined he was to create this kind of animation. The brush stroke style not only expresses Kaguya Hime's emotions well, but is a match with the ancient setting, and the very visible grain of the strokes in the rest of the movie resulting from magnification.

Takahata's basic approach of keeping the audience at an objective remove can best be seen in the film's final moments. Kaguya Hime is being taken away to the moon, and her parents are bawling because the girl they raised from a child is being taken away. Kaguya Hime has become attached to life in the world, having experienced all the beauty and emotion that it offers, and doesn't want to leave. Precisely at the moment when the audience instinctively wants to feel emotional catharsis, Takahata wrenches us out of the false reality of film with the loudly joyous music of the heavens. The clash is discomfiting and captures the ironic tragedy of the situation, prompting us to think more than feel.

Another defining trait of Takahata's approach to realistic directing is the emphasis on long shots of character acting to make the characters feel real, rather than necessarily trying to be realistic per se by drawing things photorealistically. This film is without doubt the summum opus of this aspect of Takahata's filmmaking language thanks to the synergy of Osamu Tanabe & co.'s remarkably rich character animation. Kaguya Hime's rapid aging is very odd to observe, but it is lovingly depicted by the animation. The original story is terse about why Kaguya Hime was exiled to earth, and almost entirely omits the every detail of her life on earth. All of a sudden, she's being taken away, and her parents are bawling. There's no weight there because we haven't followed her life closely enough to know what led to those feelings. Presented with this, Takahata made the decision to meticulously depict Kaguya Hime's life on earth as a way of giving weight to her and her adopted parents' unwillingness to part. Osamu Tanabe's animation bears the entire burden of this task and makes the character's plight believable.

Takahata has experience directing adaptations of stories about children growing up, most notably Heidi (1974), although Anne of Green Gables (1979) is perhaps the most obvious reference point for its actual depiction of Anne's physical maturation over the course of the series. Here that maturation is depicted on fast-forward in the span of a few minutes. Another reference point is 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (1976), the intermediate step between these two, and the first place where Takahata took steps towards his mature style of objective realism. Heidi still depicted an idealized world, whereas 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother was a documentary in spirit.

It could be in a nod to this that Takahata quotes himself in Kaguya Hime. The scene where Sutemaru gets beaten up is lifted verbatim from episode 45 of 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, in which Marco watches in silent horror from the train on which he has snuck as his friend Pablo runs out to divert the driver, and winds up getting beaten up and left stranded in the middle of the pampas. It's definitely the most powerful scene in an already powerful series, but the scene must have had special meaning to him beyond that for him to quote it in this way. Maybe it's that this scene, which forces the protagonist to become the observer of events beyond his or her control, is meant to remind us of our own position as spectators.

The beautiful art courtesy of Kazuo Oga and his team of background artists is another major draw of the film. Oga is a master of painting the natural world, and with Kaguya Hime he's created one of the most vivid depictions of the natural world yet in anime. He used watercolor to help create the feeling of a living picture scroll. Enlarging the paintings created white spaces that add to the impression by emphasizing the white base. This was his first time as art director for a major film since Pompoko in 1994. He now works mainly as an illustrator, also doing anime background art on a solo basis. The film is thus welcome for getting this great artist to do one more big job.

This approach of having one talented animator and one talented background artist spearhead their respective sections in a very individualistic way goes back at least to Gauche the Cellist (1982), in which animator Toshitsugu Saida drew all of the key animation and artist Takamura Mukuo drew all of the background art.

Although I found the movie somewhat less satisfying than previous Takahata outings, it is still a superbly beautiful film and I am eager to rewatch it again as soon as possible. It's sad that this may be the last major film by this genius, but it's a blessing we have it, as it was a long time coming. Good on Ghibli for being patient over its reported 7 years of production. I'm glad to find with this film that he stayed true to his guns to the last, continuing with his hand-crafted, lushly traditionally animated, anti-heroic, anti-epic brand of animated filmmaking. It's films like this that show that hand-drawn animation still has plenty of life left in it.

Anime Anime Japan

3 November 2014

ANIME NEWS: ‘Princess Kaguya’ hits U.S. cinemas as it gears up for awards season

Translated by The Asahi Shimbun from the website of Anime Anime Japan Ltd.

tudio Ghibli’s critically acclaimed feature “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” has opened in North American cinemas ahead of the U.S. film awards season.

Written and directed by Isao Takahata, the animated film was released in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto on Oct. 17, one week before its arrival at theaters in San Francisco, Seattle and other cities.

The film will be eventually shown in more than 40 movie houses in North America.

Chloe Grace Moretz lends her voice to Princess Kaguya in the English-language edition, with James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Darren Criss and Lucy Liu also members of the voice cast.

Walt Disney Studios has been distributing Studio Ghibli movies for families and children in recent years in North America. But films for adults and previously released movies have been handled by GKIDS Inc., which is also distributing “Princess Kaguya.”

Titles from the independent GKIDS distributor are not released on a nationwide scale. But the company has been commended by moviegoers and industry professionals for its good eye for quality. GKIDS has distributed many animated films that have won awards and nominations.

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” made its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was later showcased at the Fantastic Fest film festival in Austin, Texas, with the IFC Center in New York also offering a special screening program.

Based on the Japanese folktale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” “Princess Kaguya” was given the Audience Award at Fantastic Fest and continues to receive rave reviews.

According to film review website Rotten Tomatoes, it has received a 100 percent positive reviews on the Tomatometer, which aggregates reviews from film critics and media, with 25 reviews submitted.

As of Oct. 18, the movie has scored a 90/100 rating on review aggregator website Metacritic, while it has received an 8.1/10 rating from users on online film database IMDb.

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” hit Japanese cinemas in November 2013. The film is set to be released on Blu-ray and DVD on Dec. 3.

For more information, visit the official website of GKIDS at (

Asahi Shimbun

20 November 2013

Takahata says his latest anime movie pushes boundaries

By Atsushi Ohara

Studio Ghibli Inc.'s remaining anime giant Isao Takahata says his latest and possibly last movie pushes the boundaries of animation technique.

"Kaguyahime no Monogatari" (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) took the 78-year-old Takahata eight years to make. It will be released in theaters across Japan on Nov. 23.

It comes on the heels of the recent announcement by Hayao Miyazaki, 72, the other master animator who made Studio Ghibli internationally famous, that he was retiring from full-length film making.

What differentiates "Kaguyahime no Monogatari" from other of Takahata's works is his reliance on incorporating some of the rough pencil sketch lines in the final animation cels. It is his first feature-length movie in 14 years.

"I believe we have been able to achieve our goal of trying out a new form of expression," Takahata said. "I feel that this work pushes animation forward."

Unlike past animation movies that had uniform outlines and colors, the lines occasionally become blurred and some spaces are not colored in his latest work. Takahata explored a similar approach in his previous feature-length film "My Neighbors the Yamadas."

"I wanted to create illustrations that had the feel of a quick sketch that incorporated the coloring schemes that first came to my mind (when drawing them)," Takahata explained. "I wanted to take advantage of the power of the vigorous lines drawn by animators and felt that reality would be better expressed through rough sketches rather than detailed drawings. I think viewers will be able to feel the 'authenticity' that lies beyond the lines by stimulating their imaginations and stirring their memories."

Takahata has always been known for the amount of thought he puts into expressing his visions on screen. That may be one reason it took so long to complete "Kaguyahime no Monogatari."

Considering his age and the time needed to complete the feature-length work, the film may turn out to be Takahata's final piece.

The script for the movie was based on the classic Japanese folk tale "Taketori Monogatari" (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter). It is about a girl born from a bamboo tree who grows up to become a beautiful princess. However, she rejects all marriage proposals and in the end decides to return to the moon with an escort who has been tasked with bringing her home.

While the animation movie follows the general plot of the original folk tale, it also includes Takahata's own take on why the princess came to Earth in the first place.

He said he originally came up with the idea in his 20s, and made it the starting point for the movie.

"The moon is a problem-free world that is too perfect," Takahata said. "But for the princess, the Earth is an even more attractive place due to its imperfections and the fact it is full of life and color."

Like his past works, such as "Heidi, Girl of the Alps" and "Omoide Poroporo," which went by the English title "Only Yesterday," Takahata once again stressed the landscapes and lifestyle found in rural settings in his latest movie.

However, the illustrations in "Kaguyahime" are drawn in light colors. The characters in the movie are sketched in a similar manner.

"Kaguyahime no Monogatari" cost 5 billion yen ($50 million) to make, an unheard-of figure for a Japanese movie, be it animated or live action.

"While I do not think about money when I am actually producing a work, the only problem that remains after completion is how to recover all the costs," Takahata said.

As for his younger colleague's retirement announcement, Takahata said he is not completely convinced:

"I hold no responsibility for the future of Ghibli and do not know how things will turn out," Takahata said. "However, although Hayao Miyazaki said he was retiring, I feel there is the possibility that could change. I feel that way because I have worked with him for a very long time. So I don't want people to be surprised if that is what happens."

Associated Press (CTV News)

17 February 2015

Oscar-nominated 'Princess' looks to the past for animation inspiration

By Yuri Kageyama

TOKYO — The princess laughs and floats in sumie-brush sketches of faint pastel, a lush landscape that animated film director Isao Takahata has painstakingly depicted to relay his gentle message of faith in this world.

But his Oscar-nominated work stands as a stylistic challenge to Hollywood's computer-graphics cartoons, where 3D and other digital finesse dominate. Takahata says those terms with a little sarcastic cough.

The 79-year-old co-founder of Japan's prestigious animator, Studio Ghibli, instead stuck to a hand-drawn look.

Edo-era woodblock-print artists like Hokusai understood Western-style perspective and the use of light, but they purposely chose to depict reality with lines, and in a flat way, with minimal shading, and that is at the heart of Japanese "manga," or comics, said Takahata.

"We want to fuse the styles, the Japanese and the Western. To express things with a stroke of a line is Japanese tradition, but we do it with a proper understanding of dimension," he told The Associated Press at the picturesque Ghibli offices in suburban Tokyo.

"It is about the essence that's behind the drawing," he said. "We want to express reality without an overly realistic depiction, and that's about appealing to the human imagination."

"The Tale of The Princess Kaguya" is based on a Japanese folktale about an aging woodcutter and his wife, who find a girl in a bamboo stalk glowing in the dark. She grows up to be a beautiful princess, courted by rich samurai, mostly fakes, perverts and liars.

It's a coming-of-age story, almost feminist in its tone. Princess Kaguya stands firm against the male advances.

It has a supernatural twist, an ending that's part of the original. She turns out to be an extraterrestrial and returns to the moon, a symbol of death, in a canopy floating on clouds, surrounded by angels.

"All those are correct interpretations," Takahata says happily, a little professorial, when asked about the meanings behind his work.

Takahata has a soft spot for feminist themes. His past works have focused on lovable and strong female characters, including his 1970s Japanese TV series "Heidi, Girl of the Alps," based on the book by Swiss author Johanna Spyri.

Takahata, who also wrote the screenplay for "Kaguya," does not draw himself.

And so visually his works take many styles, from the doe-eyed portrayals typical of Japanese manga, in the 1988 "Grave of the Fireflies," a powerful anti-war tear-jerker, to the oil-painting inspired "Gauche the Cellist," a tasteful 1982 rendition of a classic by early 20th century poet-writer Kenji Miyazawa.

Although "Kaguya" is seen as a long-shot in Oscar speculation, Takahata is flattered the work was nominated, as a team of people worked hard on it, he says.

Unlike Hayao Miyazaki, another Ghibli star and the 2003 Oscar winner for "Spirited Away," who dislikes traveling, Takahata will attend the Academy Awards ceremony Oct. 22.

Takahata confesses to an almost love-hate relationship with Miyazaki because their works are so different. He tries not to talk about Miyazaki's works because he would have to be honest, and then he would end up getting critical. That would lead to conflict, when he respects Miyazaki, he said.

Daisuke Watanabe, a scholar and critic of film, characterized "Kaguya" as a masterpiece and a culmination of Takahata's legacy, and in a larger sense, the seven-decade history of Japanese animation.

Japanese animation had its beginnings in those who wanted to create a studio like Disney's, Watanabe said.

"The fact that this work has won a positive evaluation from the Academy, for an award bestowed by Hollywood, that place that created Disney, is so moving," he said.

Takahata has his mind set on his next work, a story about exploited girls, forced to work as nannies with infants strapped on their backs. Most lullabies in Japan were not for parents singing babies to sleep, but for such young women, crying out about their suffering, Takahata said.

All the stories he wants to tell, including "Kaguya," he said, urges everyone to live life to their fullest, to be all they can be, not bogged down by petty concerns like money and prestige.

"This earth is a good place, not because there is eternity," he said. "All must come to an end in death. But in a cycle, repeated over and over, there will always be those who come after us," he said.

The Economist

16 December 2014

The Tale of Studio Ghibli

By D.S.K.

STUDIO GHIBLI, the animation studio behind the Oscar-winning feature film “Spirited Away”, has frequently been described as Japan’s answer to Disney. It’s perhaps closer to the truth to call it Japan’s antidote to Disney. Studio Ghibli’s lush, hand-drawn, 2-D animation, disregard for Hollywood narrative formulae and guiding philosophy—that animated films can be for grown-ups—are sadly foreign concepts in the paradigm of modern animation. This is the studio that released the whimsical cinematic lullaby “My Neighbour Totoro” on the same bill as “Grave of the Fireflies”, a devastating second-world-war drama that Roger Ebert called the most realistic animated film he’d ever seen, not because of how it looked, but how it felt.

In the wake of the retirement of its visionary director, Hayao Miyazaki, last year, Studio Ghibli is taking an indefinite break from the production of new feature films, citing high production costs. This is a profound loss to animation and cinema, and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is a vivid, bittersweet illustration of all the reasons why. With no British or American release dates announced for the studio’s latest effort “When Marnie Was There”, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” may go down as Studio Ghibli’s swansong on the international scene.

Directed by Isao Takahata (director of “Grave of the Fireflies”), “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is a gorgeously asymmetrical blend of celestial fantasy, folksy parable, romance and coming-of-age story, beginning with the discovery of a tiny, thumb-sized princess in a stalk of bamboo. The princess magically transforms into a baby who grows, at an alarming rate, into a young woman of exquisite beauty, and is whisked away by her adoptive parents to a regal life more befitting her.

Not only does “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” set itself well apart from anything you’re likely to see by Disney these days, it’s also miles away from Studio Ghibli’s own sumptuously detailed style. Instead, Mr Takahata has created a striking and expressionistic storybook aesthetic, with a subdued watercolour palette, sketchy character outlines and plenty of white space. In an age saturated by computer-generated gloss, these visuals make us aware of the artists and their handiwork. It all feels as charmingly antiquated as the handcarving of wooden bowls depicted in the film.

In the movie’s most breathless sequence, the princess escapes from her royal mansion and races headlong into the night, gowns and long hair fluttering—at which point the visuals burst into vibrant life, sweeping up the audience in a blurry rush of frantic graphite strokes, as if the film itself has become gloriously liberated from its constraints. The captivating sequence is accentuated by the portentous soundtrack of the composer, Joe Hisaishi, another artist whose signature style has become beloved of Ghibli fans.

As wondrous as it is, it’s the sort of stylistic flourish that has the potential to alienate Western audiences accustomed to more homogenised animation. When a sample of these scenes was revealed in an online teaser trailer in 2013, one American film site suggested that it resembled “unfinished storyboards waiting to be animated”. And, naturally, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” has been dubbed into English for its American release, an egregious (though well-meaning) practice initiated by Disney even for films clearly intended for mature audiences capable of reading subtitles. With that kind of treatment to be expected at the hands of mainstream Western audiences, it can be little wonder that a dazzling lodestar on the international animation scene is fading away.

Los Angeles Times

21 October 2014

Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli surfaces with 'Tale of Princess Kaguya'

By Mark Olsen

For many fans of Japanese animation, the name Studio Ghibli has become synonymous with the fantastic worlds and deeply felt emotions of director Hayao Miyazaki. This is, in part, because Miyazaki's founding partner in the studio, Isao Takahata, went 14 years without making a feature film.

With "The Tale of Princess Kaguya," playing now in Los Angeles, Takahata, who turns 79 on Oct. 29, has returned with a film both light and heavy, with its delicate, painterly look supporting an emotional intensity.

In the time since his previous film, Takahata has not simply sat still. Among other projects, he has published numerous books, including a survey of historical animation and one on fine art.

"I'm quite a dilettante," he during a recent phone call from Tokyo. "I like all kinds of things."

Takahata first had the idea for the film decades ago, and that exacting, unhurried sense of curiosity and exploration comes through in the film. The project took eight years of recent work from start to finish with its hand-drawn images by the Studio Ghibli team and assistance from computers for backgrounds and animation.

"In order to really understand where Studio Ghibli is coming from, I think you really have to be familiar with Takahata's films as well as Miyazaki's," said Dave Jesteadt, director of distribution at GKIDS, which is releasing "Princess Kaguya." The company has put out numerous Studio Ghibli titles and will also be releasing "The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness," a documentary on the making of Miyazaki's recent "The Wind Rises," by the end of the year.

"If Studio Ghibli is your favorite band, then Takahata has the deep cuts from the back catalog," Jesteadt said. "And it presents a really interesting contrast to some of the films people are familiar with when they think of Ghibli."

"The Tale of Princess Kaguya" is drawn from a 10th century Japanese folk tale known as "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter." In the film, a poor rural man who makes his living cutting bamboo discovers a small baby girl growing inside a stalk. Though the girl is said to be from the Kingdom of the Moon, the man and his wife raise her as their child. As she grows, she rebuffs many wealthy suitors, holding out hope to be with a local boy she knows from her youth, until she is eventually torn away from her Earth-bound life and family and forced to return to her otherworldly home.

The film opened in Japan at the end of last year and went on to the Cannes Film Festival before playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, and has been met internationally by near-universal critical acclaim. The Times' Kenneth Turan hailed it as "a parable about what matters in life and what does not." While calling the film "a staggering masterpiece," critic Glenn Kenny, writing at, called the film "both very simple and head-spinningly confounding, a thing of endless visual beauty… a true work of art."

The look of the film has generated just as much talk as the storytelling, with an organic flowing quality that is for many reminiscent of the soft colors and fluid, impressionistic images of watercolor painting.

"I wanted to give life to the line," Takahata said regarding the film's distinctively ephemeral look, an extension of techniques he first explored with his previous feature, 1999's "My Neighbors the Yamadas."

"Well, certainly I have no word to describe the style that I use. I don't have a name for it," he added. "Even with watercolors, there are many styles, so I wouldn't want to label it as watercolor.

"Of course it helps to have very well-drawn features, but what I like to have come from the film is the feeling of the moment, the feeling of the characters. So in this film of ours, we used lines and forms that are not maybe completely finished, but my whole intent was to really convey the feeling of that moment, of that story."

Though it may seem unusual that Takahata is dismissive of his own abilities to draw, he is quick to note that Walt Disney did not draw on his most famous films. "If you want to make an animated film from your own drawings, I think you would become very narrow and limited by your own style and abilities. The role of the director is to gather very talented people, and to direct his vision."

In a documentary made for Japanese television on the making of "Princess Kaguya," Takahata is captured barely pausing from his own work to watch a broadcast of the news conference at which Miyazaki, an Oscar winner for "Spirited Away," announced his retirement. Miyazaki may be better known — he is receiving an honorary Oscar at this year's Governors Awards — but it is the push-and-pull of the long relationship between him and Takahata that has allowed them both to achieve greatness.

"I have said that Hayao Miyazaki's retirement announcement shouldn't be a surprise," Takahata said. "I still have hopes for him, that he can perhaps make another film. I really want him to."

Though Miyazaki, 73, declared "The Wind Rises" his last film, the older Takahata feels no such compulsion. Their differing approaches to the twilight of their careers underscore how, even though the pair may be great friends and colleagues — they have known each other more than 50 years — they are very different as filmmakers. Takahata's work is marked by a moodiness that is in contrast to Miyazaki's sense of wonder. There is also perhaps some sense of competition fueling their work.

"I don't want to say that I want to retire or that I have retired," Takahata said. "I still have films that I might want to make, but there's a reality of whether I can make them or not at my age. I'm very fortunate to work with very talented people, and I certainly don't plan on retiring and don't want to say that I am retired."

The fervent fandom around Studio Ghibli could be seen last summer when comments from a news conference in Japan by producer Toshio Suzuki were misunderstood in translation to mean that Studio Ghibli was closing. (It's not.) Yet the outpouring of concern and emotion over the possibility created an uproar.

Now, they have much to cheer with at least this one more film from the quiet master of Takahata. With rave reviews, the film looks to be competitive in the race for the animated feature Oscar.

"If this happens to be his last film," said Jesteadt, "I think everyone involved just feels like this is a wonderful, amazing masterpiece of a film, one of the best films we've been fortunate enough to release. To be involved in any way is incredibly special."

19 March 2015

Studio Ghibli's Isao Takahata on animating his final film

By Matt Kamen

Isao Takahata is one of the most important and influential animators in the history of the medium. With a career spanning six decades, he has helped shape Japan's domestic animation industry and inspired audiences worldwide. A co-founder of the legendary Studio Ghibli, Takahata has directed films such as Grave of the Fireflies, proving that "cartoons" can be every bit as powerful as live action cinema.

With his final movie The Tale of the Princess Kaguya -- a beautiful adaptation of a thousand-year old Japanese fairy tale, where a bamboo cutter raises a mysterious girl he finds in a tree -- about to open in UK cinemas, had the pleasure of speaking with Takahata on his earliest work in the anime industry, his evolving artistic influences, and Studio Ghibli's legacy. You began your career at Toei, producing television animation. Did you expect at the time that Japanese anime would grow to have the global appeal it now does?

Isao Takahata: No, I had no idea. Toei Animation was established with the thought that, unlike live-action [Japanese] films, feature animation films had international appeal and should be able to do business abroad. Despite this, those involved in animation work in Japan were making films thinking only about those close to them or their children. Even after they started making TV animation, I think they hardly ever thought about the outside world or overseas markets. In my own case, while I had a strong interest in European, American, and the world's diverse cultures, in fact I have not once made a film hoping that it would be seen abroad. This is true as well for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Of course, I am very happy that people abroad are able to see the film and that it is well-received!

Do you feel the Japanese animation industry has fundamentally changed since you started out?

Japan's TV animation started with Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy with a shockingly low budget. That situation hasn't changed, and continues to this day. Even after Japanese animation started being broadcast and screened around the world, those who work in animation have always been poor compared to those in Europe and America, and the production periods are short. In Japan, budgets are structured to recoup expenses in the domestic market. Studio Ghibli films that have gradually commanded higher budgets hold an exceptional position in Japan.

Between My Neighbours the Yamadas in 1999 and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, you were involved with Kihachirō Kawamoto's Winter Days anthology. It's probably your least known work in the west, so could you discuss how you became involved on the project?

Winter Days is a collection of collaborative linked poems hosted by Bashō Matsuo, the renowned seventeenth century haiku poet. Creating renku, collaborative linked poems, is a highly cultured amusement in which several people take turns composing extemporaneous short, linked poems to jointly create a long poem. Humour was an essential aspect of this form of haiku, or the playful form known as haikai.

Kihachirō Kawamoto, to whom I owe much, came up with the idea of creating a film of Winter Days by assigning each poem to a different animation director to realise this project. He asked me to participate in this effort. I thought this was a rash attempt, but I wanted to applaud Mr Kawamoto's foolhardiness as he knowingly took this on. I first cooperated with Mr Kawamoto in turning the old and difficult language of the linked verse collection into modern Japanese. This was distributed to the participating animation directors. While we were working on this, from the expectations I had and respect I felt for mutual friends of ours, the Russian Yuri Norstein and the Canadian Frédéric Back, I decided to take on one of Bashō's haiku. Unfortunately, Mr. Back was unable to participate as his schedule was too busy.

The result was a unique and interesting film. But, unless one understands the meaning of each poem, it might be hard to comprehend. I was especially impressed by Mr. Norstein's segment in which he showed such a Japanese poetic sentiment and humour, far beyond what Japanese people can express.

Visually, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is closer to Yamadas than your earlier movies. What appeals to you about this more impressionistic style?

It is interesting that you describe the style as impressionistic! I have been strongly influenced by Back's Crac! and The Man Who Planted Trees. His animation style can truly be called impressionistic.

In order to have people believe in a fantasy world and characters that no one has seen in reality, it may be best to present the space, objects, and characters in a three-dimensional manner. It is as if that world existed right there, in a trompe l'oeil fashion. The current American animation films utilise 3D CG to aim in that direction.

But I wonder about the representation of the world we know well, how to depict very ordinary daily landscapes, nature, and people. I have long thought that it is better to appeal to the viewers' memory and imagination but this was impossible to express through animation. The initial act of sketching has been the best method for carving onto people's minds and memories the true impression of objects and figures.

Convinced that it was unnecessary to draw in scrupulous detail the everyday world that everyone knows, I used this style for My Neighbours the Yamadas. I thought that the gifted Hisaichi Ishii [creator of the manga Nono-chan, that Yamadas was based on] had captured a distinct reality of Japanese people in his graphic renditions, and I believe I made the characters move with greater reality than in the usual animation films.

How did you apply those techniques and styles to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya?

With [this film] I went further along this direction to have the audience vicariously experience the instant the artist rapidly sketched what was occurring in front of his eyes. I aimed to have the audience vividly imagine or recall the reality deep within the drawings, rather than thinking the drawings themselves were the real thing. This would allow the viewers to feel moved by the actions and emotions of joy and sorrow of the characters, and sense nature teeming with life, in a more evocative way than through a seemingly real painting.

For this effort to succeed, it was essential to have the collaboration of a brilliant animator and an artist with special talents. Without Osamu Tanabe, who created the character design, animation design, and layout, and Kazuo Oga, who created the artwork, "The Tale of The Princess Kaguya" could not have been made. This work is the crystallization of the efforts of these two and the entire staff who supported our vision.

Thematically, the film's observations of the joys of nature over materialism echoes your 1994 film, Pom Poko. Given Princess Kaguya's roots in ancient folklore, was that intentional?

Of course, the environmental theme was deliberate. I have expressed this as a latent theme in other works as well. I agree wholeheartedly with the lyrics of What a Wonderful World that Louis Armstrong sings. Life in Japan was in tune with nature until the modern age. A sustainable system was in place for people to receive the fruits of nature while they worked to allow nature to survive in a viable way. All life on Earth is cyclical -- birth, growth, death, and revival -- as in the songs I wrote for the film. I consider this to be the basis for everything. That is why I take on this theme over and over.

Hayao Miyazaki and yourself are regarded as the heart of Studio Ghibli. Now you've both finished your final films, what are your feelings on Ghibli's legacy and reputation?

I'm not sure I can respond in any meaningful way. What Hayao Miyazaki has built up is the greatest contribution. The existence of that thick trunk has allowed leaves to unfurl and flowers to bloom to become the fruitful tree that is Studio Ghibli.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya opens in UK cinemas tomorrow, 20 March.

The Wrap

5 September 2014

Toronto Debuts of ‘Song of the Sea and ‘Princess Kaguya’ Heat Up Oscar Animation Race

Two films from American distributor GKIDS showcase novel approaches from Ireland and Japan

By Steve Pond


But some smaller films are also in the running this year, and American distributor GKIDS brought two of them to Toronto in advance of their qualifying runs. Both have some Oscar pedigree: “Song of the Sea” is from the Irish director Tomm Moore, responsible for the 2010 nominee “The Secret of Kells,” while “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” comes from Studio Ghibli, which has been nominated for two of founder Hayao Miyazaki‘s films and won for “Spirited Away” in 2002.


“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” which premieres Friday, may be a harder sell to voters – not because it isn't worthy, but because its deliberate storytelling rhythms and two-hour-and-17-minute running time could hurt it with animation viewers accustomed to snappier work.

The latest film from Studio Ghibli, the legendary Japanese animation company headed by recently-named honorary Oscar winner Hayao Miyazaki, “Princess Kaguya” comes from director Isao Takahata, whose previous films include “Grave of the Fireflies” and “My Neighbors the Yamadas.” He is now 78, and he has said this will be his final feature film – just as Miyazaki did after making “The Wind Rises” last year.

Like “The Wind Rises,” it is a fitting summation, elegiac and concerned with the passage of time. Based on the Japanese folktale that goes by the name “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” it focuses on a tiny princess found by a cutter when she emerges from a bamboo shoot; she turns into a baby, then matures quickly into a young woman whose beauty attracts a bevy of highborn suitors.

Takahata specializes in watercolors and charcoal drawings, and he initially tells his story in muted colors before the film becomes more vibrant. The look is gorgeous if understated, the rhythms slow, with the film reaching a visual and emotional peak in its final half hour.

The most rapturous sequence involves flying – as “The Wind Rises” showed last year, something about flight brings out the best in Studio Ghibli.

The story eventually circles back to a development we'd seen coming for at least an hour, though Takahata refuses to tidy up his folktale source the way so many American animated features have done. Instead, thankfully, “Princess Kaguya” is a reminder that folklore can be dark and sad and mournful, too.

And while you won't find dark and sad and mournful in the logline of too many Oscar animation nominees, even cartoons could do with a little nicely-drawn tragedy every so often.

Yomiuri Shimbun

29 November 2013

The heart of a moon maiden / Anime auteur takes new look at ancient tale

By Takashi Kondo

What is the truth behind Kaguyahime, or Princess Kaguya?

In his first film in 14 years—“Kaguyahime no Monogatari” (The Tale of Princess Kaguya), director Isao Takahata attempts to uncover the hidden story behind the Japanese fairy tale “Taketori Monogatari” (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter).

Turning his back on the prevailing use of realistic images in films today, the anime film master dared to use more organic freehand forms of visual expression.

Dating back to the Heian period (794-1192), “Taketori Monogatari” is Japan’s oldest narrative literature.

Takahata said he came up with the idea of dramatizing the classic work about 55 years ago, when he was working for Toei Doga (currently Toei Animation Co.). The company proposed the idea of producing an anime film based on the story by master director Tomu Uchida, and all the employees were asked to submit a plan.

The story centers on a baby girl who emerges from a mysterious glowing stalk of bamboo. She grows into a beautiful woman who receives marriage proposals from a number of noblemen but rejects all their advances. Then one day, a special messenger arrives to take her back to the moon, her original home.

The original story’s simplicity made Takahata curious.

He wondered: “Why did Kaguyahime come to Earth and return to the moon?”

In the original story, Kaguyahime talks about a “promise in the past,” suggesting that she came to Earth based on a promise she made while living on the moon.

“I thought I’d be able to depict the true story of Princess Kaguya [if I could explain the reason],” Takahata said.

He didn’t end up submitting his plan, but his determination to “tell the story behind Princess Kaguya” lived on.

“The original story certainly describes Princess Kaguya’s emotions, but its descriptions are not sufficient. She does not seem to have human feelings in most parts of the story, but as she is about to leave Earth to return to the moon, she suddenly reveals her emotions,” Takahata said. “It didn’t sit right with me. I think other people also felt this way, and it might be why they don’t find the story interesting. This is what made me start thinking about producing what I consider the ‘right story’ based on my own interpretation.”

Finally completed more than half a century since the director first came up with the idea, the film depicts a princess “who adores the Earth that is filled with diverse colors and inhabited with various animals and plants” but who is later “unable to fully rejoice in life although she is now living on Earth.”

“The world blesses us with various things, and how wonderful it is to live while rejoicing in such blessings”—the idea Takahata puts in the story of Princess Kaguya has much in common with one of his earlier works, “Heidi, A Girl of the Alps,” a TV anime program first broadcast in 1974.

"Heidi, who grows up surrounded by nature in the Alps, has a hard time after going to the city, but she feels free after returning to the mountains. Similarly, Princess Kaguya has to return to the moon after she moves to the city. Nothing has changed,” Takahata said.

Takahata designed the film to allow the audience to share the process of uncovering the truth behind the well-known story along with the production team. The director chose to use sketch-style images in the film with this intention in mind.

“With sketches, you draw elements you want to add at that moment, but you don’t include other elements you decide you don’t need. So, a sketch has the power to inspire its viewers to imagine a story behind it or interpret the work, in light of their own memories,” the director said.

Takahata believes that the strength and power of roughly drawn lines will produce “real” touches different from the “reality” achieved by the intricacy and stereoscopic effects of 3-D images.

“When you look at children’s pictures, you won’t be displeased even if they are poorly drawn. Rather, you feel encouraged to understand them as you try to find out what the children tried to draw. I’ve long wished to produce a film with such pictures,” Takahata said.

The film is produced by Studio Ghibli, which was cofounded by fellow anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki, who has announced his retirement as a director. But Takahata, who just turned 78, expressed his intention to create more works, saying “[I’ll make more] if there is the opportunity to do so.”

“Unlike Hayao Miyazaki, I don’t draw pictures myself. I’m sneaky because I give others a hard time by letting them draw pictures. As long as I have the energy, I will probably feel like producing more works.”