The Tale of Princess Kaguya (impressions)

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5 September 2014

The Twilight Of Studio Ghibli Births Two New Films

Hayao Miyazaki may have retired, but a new doc about his company offers an unprecedented look at how he worked. Meanwhile, Ghibli’s latest animated release turns an old folktale into something truly epic.

By Alison Willmore

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

In August, rumors swirled that Studio Ghibli, the seminal Japanese animation studio responsible for classics like Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away, was shutting down its feature film department. The world mourned, but it wasn’t actually true. Co-founder Toshio Suzuki later clarified that the company was only planning on taking a pause in production, but the more dramatic version of this news had already spread like wildfire. It was an announcement plenty of Ghibli followers had been expecting since the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki last year.

Studio Ghibli has produced movies from other directors, but for most people the name is inextricably tied to Miyazaki, to My Neighbor Totoro, to Princess Mononoke, to a landmark career in making animation that, while mostly aimed at children, has thrilled adults as well. In 2013, Miyazaki premiered what he labeled his last feature, The Wind Rises, a pensive movie about a conflicted aircraft designer whose planes are used during World War II. It received plenty of acclaim, but also felt like an end — what was Ghibli without the creative genius at its core, and without a successor to take his place?

The two Ghibli movies playing at the Toronto International Film Festival this year don’t answer that question, but present evidence that the studio’s key figures are far more caught up in contemplating this pivotal and possibly last phase in the existence of the studio than anyone in the audience. One is a documentary about the production of The Wind Rises that gives an unprecedented look into Miyazaki’s process, and the other is the final film from Isao Takahata, Ghibli’s third co-founder and a man even more reclusive than his better-known collaborator.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a geekily in-depth but not overly reverential doc that will probably bore non-Ghibli acolytes silly. But for fans, Mami Sunada’s film is like getting ushered backstage during a show by a legendary magician. The movie, which has been picked up for a yet-unspecified U.S. release by GKIDS, peers into the studio’s headquarters, located in a suburb of Tokyo, as if it’s an enchanted realm. That’s the way it’s first shot — in glimpses of carved wood, an atrium with floor-to-ceiling windows, stained glass, vines curling around the side of the building, and a lounging cat. But past that is the cluttered, highly trafficked space in which the animators, producers, lawyers, and marketers actually work, and Sunada doesn’t romanticize the creative process at the expense of also showing Ghibli as a business that’s kept afloat by hard work and financial maneuvering.

Miyazaki, who’s 72 years old at the time of filming, is almost never seen without his trusty apron. Twinkly and energetic, he resembles Geppetto presiding over his workshop — but that grandfatherly demeanor belies the frequently devastating observations he lets fly. He casually refers to animation and designing airplanes as “cursed dreams,” saying moviemaking is basically just a “grand hobby.” “Maybe there was a time when you could make films that mattered, but now?” he muses. Discussing broadcasting partner NHK’s increasing restrictions on what they’re able to do, he claims, “The days of creative freedom are ending… In a sense, what we managed to do for 50 years is all coming to an end.”

There’s no need to be apocalyptic about Ghibli’s future, or Japan’s — Miyazaki has enough of a resigned sense of doom for anyone. Asked while standing on the greened roof that’s his frequent retreat whether he’s worried about the studio’s future, he calmly states, “The future is clear. It’s going to fall apart. I can already see it. What’s the use worrying? It’s inevitable. ‘Ghibli’ is just a random name I got from an airplane. It’s only a name.” Despite the fascinating details about the history of the company, the look at the process of the film getting made — from storyboarding to voice acting to press conference — and the intense glimpse of a meeting with son and reluctant animator Goro, Miyazaki remains a vibrant but enigmatic figure, a tattered idealist standing at the edge of a cliff he’s sure is crumbling.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

We only see Isao Takahata for a few minutes toward the end of The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, though his presence is felt throughout the doc — he’s working on his own final film, which Ghibli initially planned to release at the same time as The Wind Rises. It didn’t quite work out, Takahata being terrible with budgets and schedules, but the resulting feature, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, is finally getting released in U.S. theaters on Oct. 17. Takahata, who’s best known for Grave of the Fireflies and who produced Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, hasn’t made a feature since 1999. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is one hell of a swan song, the kind of film that’s beautiful and whimsical and then just eviscerates you, and its themes of reluctantly letting go feel all the more powerful in light of Sunada’s doc.

Based on a 10th century Japanese folktale, The Tale of Princess Kaguya looks little like other Ghibli fare. Its designs are simple, like line drawings filled in with watercolors, giving it an unusual but gorgeously old-fashioned look. The story is one of a bamboo cutter who finds a girl in the forest he believes is a gift from heaven. He and his wife raise her in the country, until similarly discovered caches of gold and fine robes convince him his adoptive daughter’s intended for a fine existence in the capital.

The film slows in the middle, but the early sequences of the fast-growing princess going from giggling baby to irrepressible toddler to lithe young girl (to the delight and bemusement of her adoring parents) are joyous, a glimmering dream of a country life. It’s a feeling that’s revisited later with building urgency as Kaguya’s origins become clear, all of it summed up in an ecstatic sequence panning over the countryside that’s a whirlwind of love and regret, and one of the year’s cinematic high points.

The story of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, like most folktales, has its share of tragedy, but its final emotions are so much more complicated — ones about wasted time, about happiness, about controlling your own destiny. And it’s appropriate that, like The Wind Rises, The Tale of Princess Kaguya summons an indescribable mixture of emotions, some of them mournful. How do you top off a lifetime of work in animation? For Takahata, and for Miyazaki, it’s with films that are as wistful as they are beautiful.


8 December 2013

"The Tale of Princess Kaguya" Review

By Matt Schley

This article originally ran on

A simple bamboo cutter goes about his work in the forest when he suddenly comes across a miniature princess growing from a flower. When he takes the princess home to his wife, she transforms into a human baby before their eyes. The childless couple, believing the gods have sent them a child, decide to raise the baby as their own.

That’s the start of a 10th century folktale familiar to most Japanese called The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, aka Princess Kaguya. It’s a story that’s long held the interest of Studio Ghibli co-founder and director Isao Takahata, whose long-gestating animated version of the folktale has just hit screens in Japan.

If Hayao Miyazaki has truly retired from filmmaking and the 78-year-old Takahata has no plans for a future movie, 2013 will have marked the year when both Ghibli co-founders released their final films. And if that turns out to be the case, Takahata, like Miyazaki, will have gone out on an extremely high note.

Takahata has always had more interest in telling Japanese stories than his European-minded counterpart Miyazaki, and Princess Kaguya is perhaps his most traditionally Japanese yet. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is considered the oldest extant work of Japanese literature, and Takahata has made no significant changes to the narrative. It feels as if his goal was no to interpret or modernize the story, but to deliver a pure, animated version of the tale.

To that end, Princess Kaguya looks almost like a moving watercolor painting.

Like Takahata’s last feature, My Neighbors the Yamadas, Princess Kaguya doesn’t look much like a “standard” Ghibli film. Its characters are a bit squatter and shorter, looking like a combination of anime designs and portraits from traditional Japanese woodblock prints.

The backgrounds in the film are striking both for their beauty and their minimalism. A less confident director wouldn’t dare leave so much “blank” space, but Takahata embraces negative space as a way to highlight the important parts of the frame.

The animation itself is, as we’ve come to expect from Ghibli, first-rate. And there are moments that are truly sublime. The scene shown in a trailer for the film, where Kaguya rushes out of her castle and into the woods, is, for my money, more stunning than any shot in The Wind Rises.

But there are many beautiful moments of stillness, too. When the humble bamboo cutter finds gold in the forest, he tears Kaguya from her carefree, simple life in the forest and installs her as a true princess in a vast, but lonely, castle. Kaguya, who is more interested in nature than ceremony, suffers under the weight of aristocracy. These scenes are infused with a beautiful melancholy, brought to life both by the nuanced character designs and music by Joe Hisashi, longtime Miyazaki collaborator who provides music for a Takahata film for the first time.

A mark of Ghibli films, from both Miyazaki and Takahata, has always been strong, three-dimensional female characters, and Kaguya is no exception. Rejecting wealthy princes who have come to seek her hand over the objections of her father, Princess Kaguya shows herself to be a strong-willed woman. So it’s especially appropriate that the end of this particular chapter of Studio Ghibli history is capped with an exceptional film celebrating Japan’s original strong female character.


26 May 2014

The Playlist - Cannes Review: Studio Ghibli's 'The Tale Of Princess Kaguya' Is An Artful Return For Isao Takahata

By Oliver Lyttleton

Studio Ghibli is at a real crossroads in its history. The legendary Japanese animation studio has become a respected name even in the West, thanks to a string of classics that trump even Pixar, but last year, the legendary Hayao Miyazaki debuted "The Wind Rises," the film he claims will be his final one (and certainly feels like it's putting a period at the end of a career).

The better news is that Miyazaki's Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, the sort of George Harrison to Miyazaki's Lennon & McCartney, and director of the astonishing "Grave Of The Fireflies," has returned with "The Tale Of Princess Kaguya," his first film since "My Neighbors The Yamadas" in 1999. Given that he's 78, and not hugely prolific, it's possible that this turns out to be Takahata's final film too, and if that's the case, it's just as fitting a finale as "The Wind Rises" was. In fact, it might be even better.

Based on a famous Japanese folklore story, the film begins in the countryside at some time in the past, as a bamboo cutter discovers one magical glowing stalk, which splits open to reveal a tiny creature. He takes it home to his wife, at which point it turns into a human, or at least human-looking baby. Immediately nicknamed 'Princess' by the childless couple, and later officially christened Kaguya, which translates as 'Shining Light,' it begins growing at a remarkably fast rate, and soon grows into a beautiful young woman.

Amazed by their miracle child, and also finding stalks full of gold and beautiful robes, the bamboo cutter decides that his princess is their ticket to high society, uprooting the family from their simple rural community to the big city, forcing his daughter to say goodbye to her friends, including the handsome Sutemaru. After lessons in how to be a noblewoman, word soon spreads about her luminous beauty and wonderful musicianship, and she soon has a string of suitors. Miserably secluded and pining for the countryside, she sets them each seemingly unsolvable tasks in order to win her hand, but soon has much bigger things to worry about, when the Emperor takes a fancy to her.

Yes, it sounds a little bit like "The Odd Life Of Timothy Green." And it's certainly not an event-packed tale, given the two-hour-plus running time. But while it's probably too meditatively paced for the giant robot anime crowd, it doesn't overstay its welcome, and you're pretty happy to sit back and let the film soak over you.

And that's because it's a remarkably gorgeous piece of work, even by Ghibli's high standards. From the off, it's strikingly different to the bulk of the company's output, with a more impressionistic, hand-drawn storybook feel than we're used, reminiscent more of British cartoonist Raymond Briggs ("The Snowman," "When The Wind Blows") than "My Neighbor Totoro."

It takes a moment or two to adjust to the look, but before long, you're completely charmed by it. And crucially, the additional distance from the real world allows Takahata to get weird and experimental in places: one sequence, just about the most beautiful thing we saw at Cannes this year, sees an upset Kaguya flee the family's mansion, transforming into a blur as the landscape becomes black-on-white pencil drawings behind her. It's not just a stunning coup-de-cinema from the director, it's also a brilliant way of getting inside the head of his heroine.

What a heroine, too. Though the environmental themes so often found in Ghibli pictures are here in force, it's the strong feminist tone that really makes it fly. Kaguya is, like most other women in the city, objectified by the men around her, even her father, who uses her as his pass to the aristocracy, and essentially locks her up in a room away from prying eyes (he's not a two-dimensional villain though: what he does he does from love for his daughter to some degree).

And yet Kaguya continually resists being put into the boxes she's being forced in and constantly outwits the men around her. There's only so far she can go, given the patriarchal society around her, but the film's plea for a simpler, more equal life is thoroughly moving (some of the stuff about Mother Moon is more heavy-handed, but pays off at the end).

It's also, to a large extent, about mortality. Given her accelerated growth, one would be fairly safe in assuming that Kaguya won't be long for this world, and a heavy note of inevitable tragedy hangs over the third act: it might be a tough watch for younger kids as a result, though there's a real catharsis that comes from it. It's, again like "The Wind Rises," a filmmaker confronting their age, and coming to terms with what's coming down the line, and it fits nicely in with the lower-key, more realistic tone of Takahata's other work, even if we do have the occasional wood nymph or cloud-dragon (in a stunning, show-stopper of a sequence).

It's true that the film does lull in the middle, with a slightly repetitive quality that may be a deliberate attempt to show Kaguya's captivity, but that doesn't make it less watchable. It's a film about tone as much as anything, and the gorgeous, pastoral quality of the work here has lingered long past the film's ending. Not being a brand name in the same way, Takahata's film won't reach the same kind of audience as "The Wind Rises," but animation fans, and basically anyone else, will find something rich and rewarding if they do check it out.

Japan Times

21 November 2013

Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya)

Ghibli's Takahata returns triumphant after 14 years

By Mark Schilling

Isao Takahata has long been overshadowed by longtime colleague and Studio Ghibli cofounder Hayao Miyazaki. The younger man (Takahata is 78, Miyazaki 72) has had more and bigger hits, including his latest, the World War II-themed “Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises),” while Takahata’s last feature animation, the 1999 family comedy “Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun (My Neighbors the Yamadas),” was a rare Ghibli box-office disappointment.

And yet Takahata is every bit the anime master that Miyazaki has been widely proclaimed to be, if one with a different style and concerns. His Ghilbi films tend to be more realistic than Miyazaki’s, beginning with 1988′s “Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies),” an unsparing drama about children struggling to survive in the destruction and chaos that enveloped Japan toward the end of WWII. It is the most emotionally devastating Japanese film I have ever seen, while being free of the cloying sentimentality that is a prerequisite for commercial tearjerkers here.

So Takahata’s latest and quite possibly last film, “Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya),” might seem to be a departure, since it is based on the oldest-known Japanese folk tale, which dates to the 10th century. Also, its gestation, eight years by the count of producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, was long even by Ghilbi’s relaxed standards, with Takahata’s reluctance to commit being one factor, production delays another. But far from an uncomfortable fit or a labored effort, “Princess Kaguya” has the feel of a true Takahata film, from its unshrinking emotional fidelity to its sudden, exhilarating leaps into fantasy.

The animation, with its combination of bold, dynamic strokes and delicate, lightly brushed colors, may initially look underdone compared with other Ghibli productions, with their lush backdrops and fine detailing, but as the story progressed, I found this more impressionistic style somehow suggestive of the story’s origin in the most ancient of tales — and our common desires, fears and dreams.

That tale is known to every Japanese, if not to the outside world, though its motifs are also found in Western fairy tales (“Thumbelina,” “King Thrushbeard”). It begins with an old bamboo cutter, Okina (voiced by Takeo Chii), happening upon a strangely glowing bamboo in the forest and finding inside a tiny, perfectly formed girl (Aki Asakura). He takes her, cradled in his palms, to his wife Ouna (Nobuko Miyamoto), but the little creature soon morphs into a baby that the flummoxed couple decides to raise. The strangeness continues as the baby grows far faster than normal (in one brilliant, spooky sequence she quickly progresses from flailing limbs to a hesitant first step), while taking a laughing delight in the world around her.

Okina finds more treasures in the bamboo, including gold nuggets and kimono meant for a princess — that is, for his pretty adopted daughter, who is called Takenoko (Bamboo), and is obviously destined for bigger and better things. Takenoko, however, is happy with the humble places and common people she knows, especially the leader of the neighborhood kids, the rugged, pure-hearted Sutemaru (Kengo Kora).

Instead, her newly rich parents install her in a mansion, surround her with servants and have her trained in the ways of the aristocracy, from playing the koto to painting her teeth black. (The former she masters, the latter she indignantly rejects). This beautiful, accomplished, fully grown girl, now called Kaguya-hime (Princess Kaguya), attracts five well-born, ridiculously self-important suitors, but she rejects them all, even when they make seemingly miraculous efforts to meet her absurd demands. Finally the emperor, who is young, handsome and the most arrogant of all, tries to win her hand, but she spurns him as well — and reveals that she is from the moon and must soon return to the land of her birth.

This is all pretty much from the folk tale, which raises the question of what, beyond their way of telling it, Takahata and his collaborators have brought to it. The film’s tag line, “A princess’ crime and punishment,” offers a clue, while Takahata himself has said he wanted to explore what “crime” Princess Kaguya might have committed, since the original story is silent on that point.

His exploration, though, has little to do with plot, everything to do with his heroine’s emotional and spiritual journey — and the way it ends. Not to enter spoiler territory, but the climax is a haunting, wrenching evocation of mono no aware — or as it is literally translated, the pathos of things. The basis of Japanese aesthetics since time immemorial, mono no aware is hard to define, but “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” brilliantly illuminates it with images of life at its transient loveliest, of parting in its terrible finality.

There is a deep wisdom in this film, but a deep sadness too. If it is Takahata’s farewell, it’s one that will have a long echo, just like his 1,000-year-old source.

Fun fact: Hayao Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi supplied the soundtrack, his first-ever for a Takahata film. The theme song, “Inochi no Kioku (Memory of Life),” is sung by Kazumi Nikaido.


26 November 2013

Studio Ghibli’s Newest is a Beautiful, Heart-Wrenching Film

By Richard Eisenbeis

It was only four months ago that The Wind Rises, Studio Ghibli’s previous film, hit theaters across Japan. But Hayao Miyazaki is not the only director over at the studio to have a movie out this year. Isao Takahata (of Grave of the Fireflies fame) released his own film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, this past weekend.

Good – A Fairytale from the Princess’ Point of View

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫の物語) is based on The Tale of The Bamboo Cutter—the oldest known Japanese folktale. In said folktale, a bamboo woodcutter finds a baby in a bamboo tree, and raises it as his own. After she grows up into a beautiful woman, princes—and eventually the Emperor himself—vie for her affection. In the end of the story, however, she returns to her home on the moon—leaving the Emperor alone and heartbroken.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya takes this simple fantasy tale and makes it a human story. The Princess is not just a prize for the men in the story that must be won. Rather, Kaguya is a normal person—a girl with her own wants and dreams. When she sends her suitors on seemingly impossible tasks, she thinks herself clever in avoiding marriage to a stranger she doesn’t love. When some come back claiming success she finds herself panic stricken—fearful that her plan has backfired. And when some of the suitors meet with unforeseen consequences, she indulges in a hefty helping of self loathing as she blames herself for what her “cleverness” has wrought.

Good – A Battle of “Wants”

When it comes down to it, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a battle of “wants.” Kaguya herself wants to live like she did as a child: poor as dirt and running through the fields with her friends. Her father wants her to be treated like the princess she truly is—and is hell bent on making her into a “proper lady.” The Emperor and the rest of her suitors want her as a prize—the one accessory that they can’t buy with all their money and power. And looming behind all this is what the people of the moon want—why they sent her to earth (and if they are coming to take her back).

All these “wants” collide in this story—making for a tale with no good or evil, but simply one with truly human characters facing ordinary (and extraordinary) problems caused by their conflicting desires.

Good – Watercolors and Colored Pencils

Visually, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is an amazingly beautiful film. Unlike the majority of Ghibli’s films (which have a uniform visual style), The Tale of Princess Kaguya has a look all its own. The film is animated as if it were made with nothing but colored pencils and watercolors—making literally every frame of the movie feel like something that could be hung up in a gallery.

But what is really special about the animation in The Tale of Princess Kaguya is how it interacts with the story and the way in which it is told. In the film’s more tense and panic filled moments, the pencil lines become more jagged—the images more indistinct. The colors in turn mute toward blacks and grays. The opposite can be said for the surreal moments of the film where colors become brighter and the images sharper.

In other words, the film is pure eye candy from start to finish.

Random Thoughts – Be Prepared for a Sad Tale

While nowhere near as depression-inducing as Grave of the Fireflies, suffice it to say The Tale of Princess Kaguya is not a happy story. It is filled to the brim with personal conflict and tragedy. If you see the Studio Ghibli logo and think you are in for a happy family adventure like My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away you are going to be cursing yourself through a river of tears. Consider yourself warned.

Final Thoughts

All in all, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a film that is just a joy to watch. By focusing on Kaguya as a person instead of an object, the film turns Japan’s oldest folktale into a story about normal people trying to find happiness. Add to that the most beautiful, unique animation in years and you have an instant classic. If you are looking for a fairytale that you can identify with on a personal level—or just want to see something breathtaking—The Tale of Princess Kaguya is right up your alley.

In other words, if you are going to watch only one Ghibli movie this year, make it this one.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya was released in Japanese theaters on November 23, 2013. There is currently no word on a Western release.


25 November 2013

Kaguya Hime no Monogatari: The other side of Studio Ghibli 【Review】

By Philip Kendall

Kaguya Hime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) is quite unlike any Studio Ghibli offering that has gone before it. There are no benevolent forest spirits or spritely young witches to be found here; no soft, familiar faces or bright-eyed heroes with a passion for adventure; no piles of mouth-watering street food or freshly baked bread to drool over. This is a tale set in far simpler times, and although – with its thick, bold brushstrokes, muted colours and incomplete lines – it is quite the departure from the Ghibli releases many of us know and love, it still manages to be one of the studio’s most visually striking and emotive creations to date.

Based on the 10th-century folk tale known today as The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, Kaguya Hime treads ground familiar to most Japanese, but director Isao Takahata (of Grave of the Fireflies and whose last a feature-length film for the studio was some 15 years ago) explores themes that few had ever considered before, prompting many native Japanese to take to online forums to discuss the new film at length and express their surprise at seeing sides to the story that they never knew existed.

As with The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, Takahata’s film begins with an elderly farmer discovering a large glowing bamboo growing in the forest. Cutting into it, he finds a tiny, fully formed princess wearing elaborate robes sleeping inside. After carrying the miniature human home to his wife, the princess transforms into a baby, at which point the elderly couple resolve to raise her as their own, interpreting her initial appearance as a princess as a sign from the gods that the child is destined for great things.

The couple receive subsequent blessings in the form of gold and robes fit for the princess when she comes of age – which comes quickly, with those around the young girl marvelling at how she changes right before their eyes – and eventually decide to remove the girl from her humble countryside home in favour of a life of luxury in the city, wherein she is taught to act like a true princess – koto lessons, teeth blackening and all – and is courted by numerous rich, but ultimately unsavoury men with designs to make her their own.

I will stop short of describing the events that follow, though not simply out of fear of spoiling the story for those unfamiliar with its source material. Rather, the real pleasure that is to be had here is in experiencing the range of emotions this simple, occasionally fantastic (in the traditional sense of the word) tale evokes throughout, at once dazzling with its unique, at times almost impressionistic, art style. The outcome of Kaguya Hime‘s tale will surprise few, but – just as if the same artists were given the works of the Brothers Grimm, already known to millions – it is in the telling that the magic resides.

To those who grew up with Hayao Miyazaki’s offerings, Kaguya Hime’s visual style may appear bland, and at times border on unfinished. Indeed, placed side-by-side with this summer’s Kaze Tachinu, the difference is night and day, but the former’s art style lends itself far better to this classic folk tale than Miyazaki’s own ever could, and the fact that it may not appeal to younger audiences is in many ways a blessing in disguise – Kaguya Hime is ultimately a tale of life lessons, sorrow and raw emotion; if this 31-year-old writer shed tears before the end credits rolled, you can guarantee that younger audiences will either leave theatres completely mortified or simply bored and confused as much of the film’s meaning will have flown right over their heads.

For adults, and those with a love of classic tales and Japanese culture, however, Kaguya Hime no Monogatari will not disappoint. It is beautiful, emotive, and undeniably haunting. Highly recommended.

Kaguya Hime no Monogatari is in theatres now all across Japan. The film is scheduled for a 2014 release in North America.

The Telegraph

21 May 2014

The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Cannes 2014, review

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a rich and astonishing swan song for Japanese director Isao Takahata, says Robbie Collin

By Robbie Collin

Following the meticulous grandeur of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, here is an equally extraordinary, but very different, farewell film from another master of Japanese animation. The Tale of Princess Kaguya, from Isao Takahata, Miyazaki’s fellow co-founder of beloved Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, is an eerie and plaintive folk tale, alive with sadness and drawn with an ecstatic freeness that recalls the animated adaptations of Raymond Briggs – The Snowman, Father Christmas, When the Wind Blows – far more than any other Ghibli film.

Takahata’s film, which played in the Directors’ Fortnight programme at Cannes this afternoon, looks like an ancient scroll-painting come to life: its characters, sketched in charcoal, crackle with expressive energy, while loose, vivid ink-strokes become dappled sunlight, bursting blossoms and falling snow. In one astonishing sequence, as beautiful and imaginative as anything Ghibli has yet created, a character fleeing a palace becomes nothing much more distinct than a flutter of red fabric, surrounded by an expressionistic whirl of snowy hillsides and tangled trees.

The plot is based on a 10th-century Japanese legend about a poor woodcutter who finds, in the forest one morning, a tiny, doll-like girl sprouting from a bamboo shoot. He brings her home, clasped in his hands, and suddenly she puffs out and pinkens: then, with a satisfying pop, she transforms into a human baby.

The woodcutter and his wife raise the child as best they can – they call her Princess, although the local children prefer Little Bamboo, because she grows at fearsome speed. When a cache of gold and fine fabrics is discovered in the same bamboo grove, the woodcutter and his wife decide the gods must want their girl to be raised as a noblewoman, so they start a new life in the city, in a lavish mansion, surrounded by handmaidens who glide around like teardrops wrapped in silk.

Various princes try their best to woo the princess, who has now been given the name Kaguya, after reaching her teenage years in the space of a few weeks. But courtly life soon loses its appeal, and Kaguya pines for her simpler, country life – as well as wondering when the spirits that first placed her inside that bamboo shoot will come back to reclaim her.

Like Miyazaki’s final film, this feels like an intensely personal project for Takahata. The hillsides and forests of its early scenes recall Heidi, A Girl of the Alps, an animated series on which he and Miyazaki collaborated in the Seventies. (The baby princess moves exactly like babies do, and the way she toddles after frogs and nuzzles wild piglets is impossibly cute.)

Then, in its later scenes, the film becomes a kind of Buddhist Close Encounters of the Third Kind: as intensely but playfully spiritual as Takahata’s not-widely-seen-enough 1994 film Pom Poko, with flying arrows transformed into garlands of flowers, and dreamy flights across meadows and lakes, while larger themes of mortality and impermanence are also addressed.

There are certainly lulls in the film’s middle act, as Kaguya wrestles with the various niceties of life at the medieval Japanese court, and at more than two hours, the tale as a whole feels slightly overextended. But for the most part, this is a rich and astonishing swan song for Takahata, whose love of mischief and tender, expressionistic style have been essential steering forces at Studio Ghibli.


23 November 2013

Review: Takahata's The Tale of Princess Kaguya (aka The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter) Is A Beautifully Evocative Fairy Tale

By Christopher O'Keeffe

Studio Ghibli's second feature of the year has arrived with the release of director Takahata Isao's The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Due to a slight delay it arrives roughly three months behind Miyazaki's The Wind Rises, the original plan being to put the two films out together for the first time since 1988 when the two directors had Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbour Totoro on release simultaneously. Now that Miyazaki's final feature has been and gone from the standard Ghibli position at the top of the box-office and is getting ready to be shipped off to the rest of the world it's time to get a look at the studio's latest.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a 10th century Japanese folk story which, despite some minor changes and an added love interest, is followed faithfully here. An old bamboo cutter, Okina is walking in the woods when he comes across a shoot of bamboo that springs from the ground. Within the shoot is a tiny girl whom he takes home to his wife. Recognizing the girl as a gift from the gods, the childless couple agree to raise her as their own at which point she morphs into a real baby to the shock of the old man. The old woman, Ouna, takes this metamorphosis in her stride, she's also fairly relaxed about the amusing change to her own body that occurs when the question of how she will feed the baby arises. The girl learns and grows faster than the other children but she is happy with her parents and friends in the forest. When the old man finds great riches and clothes fit for a princess hidden magically within bamboo their lives change drastically as the family are uprooted to a great house in the city, where the now very beautiful young woman is dubbed Princess Kaguya and must learn to behave like a lady and eventually find a husband.

The most immediate and striking element here is the beautiful animation which works wonderfully to evoke the idea of a fairytale, having the appearance of an ancient Japanese emakimono, a picture scroll used for telling stories. In relation to the studio's other films the watercolor tones are most similar to Takahata's previous work My Neighbors the Yamadas, although the film's style is completely different to that modern family comedy. While shots of people in the fields or in the background of the city are accurate and lifelike simulating the working culture of the time, the main characters are brilliantly realized, some being highly stylized caricatures, some more realistic, all unique. The opening scenes with Kaguya as a baby capture so wonderfully a child's early movements, her adopted parents are all warmth and smiles, her teacher is prim and proper, the suitors are arrogant and flawed and Kaguya's handmaiden, despite her face being drawn with about three brush strokes, is hilarious. On the whole it's breath-taking but further flashes of brilliance make it transcendent, including a stunning scene when the young princess flees from her home into the woods causing the delicate lines to turn a deeper black and solid shapes to fall away into a speeding blur of swirling color, capturing the fear and confusion of the moment.

Studio Ghibli has created characters time and again which, while heroic and fantastical are always recognizably human, particularly it's young female protagonists, and this film is no exception. It's the warmth of the characters that really make the film so touching. The old couple are adorable and it's moving to watch the child learn and grow, so perfectly rendered in the delicate animation. The film is not without humor, found in the country girl's stubbornness in learning how to behave like a princess and in the ridiculousness of the rules and people in her new court life. Kaguya is a protagonist at once human and otherworldly and it's easy to relate to her fear of marriage and pining for the forest home we watched her grow up in. By the time the film heads towards its finale, the themes of growth and loss lead to an emotional climax.

The general consensus in Japan is that The Wind Rises was popular with adults but bored children, while this film has a much broader appeal. Takahata has always been second to Miyazaki as the face of the studio but it's not that his films are any less brilliant, his characters, with the exception of Pom Poko are just a little less cuddly. The Tale of Princess Kaguya should delight children and adults alike, in a way that Takahata's previous works have not. It will be hard to displace Grave of the Fireflies as Takahata's masterpiece for the sheer gravity of that film, but this comes close with its elegant beauty and evocative retelling of a timeless tale.


21 March 2014

Film Review: ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’

Isao Takahata's retelling of the oldest recorded Japanese narrative is a visionary tour de force.

By Maggie Lee

An animated interpretation of “Taketori monogatari,” the 10th-century Japanese tale of a damsel who came to Earth from the moon, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is a visionary tour de force, morphing from a childlike gambol into a sophisticated allegory on the folly of materialism and the evanescence of beauty. Inspired by Eastern brush painting, this ethereal new feature from 78-year-old helmer Isao Takahata takes hand-drawn animation to new heights of fluidity. Studio Ghibli’s second release of the year has struck B.O. gold, earning roughly $22.7 million to date; at 137 minutes, it’s a bit taxing for tykes, but should get glowing reviews from anime fans upon its slated U.S. bow this year through GKids.

Eight years in the making and with a budget of roughly $49 million, Takahata’s pet project actually dates back to 55 years ago, when he assisted helmer Tomu Uchida in an eventually aborted attempt to bring “Taketori monogatari” to the bigscreen. (Hailed as Japan’s oldest recorded narrative, the story has been adapted many times, notably in Kon Ichikawa’s live-action 1987 version, “Princess From the Moon.”) Liberated from the neorealism that is his trademark (“Grave of the Fireflies,” “Only Yesterday”), Takahata embraces fantasy and abstract symbolism here to wondrous effect. Viewers used to Hollywood toons packed with snappy setpieces and crowd-pleasing gags may be underwhelmed by the film’s graceful rhythms and reserved storytelling, but that won’t keep them from marveling at the sheer virtuosity of its artwork: “Kaguya” means “shining” in Japanese, and fittingly, rich contrasts of light and darkness define every scene.

Bamboo cutter Okina (literally, “old fella”), voiced by Takeo Chii, chances upon a royal-robed nymph, as dainty as Thumbelina, inside a bamboo stalk. Once he brings her home, she swells into a human-sized infant, and Okina’s wife, Ona (“woman”), voiced by Nobuko Miyamoto, miraculously begins nursing her.

Okina calls his child (Aki Asakura) “Princess,” but other tykes call her Takenoko because of her exponential growth. Her childhood, full of rough-and-tumble activity in a pastoral world, recalls the daffy slapstick and charming naivete of “Panda! Go Panda!,” the 1972-73 series directed by Takahata and written by Hayao Miyazaki. The screenplay for “Kaguya,” co-written by Takahata and Rika Sakaguchi, also adds an original character, Sutemaru (Kengo Kora), a young hunter who becomes Takenoko’s love interest. The images here are drawn with simple, soft brushstrokes and painted in watery pastel colors; the veneration of nature, a hallmark of Studio Ghibli’s animation, is apparent in the picturesque flowers in bloom.

Then Okina discovers gold dust and exquisite silks in the bamboo forest, which he believes are Takenoko’s dowry from heaven. Convinced she’s intended for grander things, he and Ona take the girl to the capital, Kyoto, where they settle into a magnificent mansion and hire governess Sagami (Atsuko Takahata) to make Takenoko a lady. But she feels homesick and stifled by this opulent new lifestyle, her plight harking back to the country-city dichotomy of the 1974 TV anime series “Heidi, Girl of the Alps,” which Takahata and Miyazaki developed together. Takenoko’s defiance of Sagami’s stuffy airs and warped cosmetic practices not only parodies the slavish pursuit of artificial beauty, but also questions the concept of artifice itself.

Okina presents his daughter to influential courtier Inbe no Akita (Tatekawa Shinosuke), who names her “Kaguya,” for the luminous aura she radiates. As he spreads word of her peerless beauty, she attracts swarms of suitors, including the Mikado, or Emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura II), five of whom she orders to perform Herculean tasks. The film captures the spirit of the tale’s most famous episode, turning the suitors’ gambits into brilliant spectacles and scintillating flights of fantasy, all while satirizing the materialism and possessiveness that too often pass for love. Just as the suitors’ motives prove questionable, so their actions yield consequences that progressively darken the tone of the yarn. Even Kaguya’s relationship with Sutemaru, which starts off as a buoyant, youthful romance, culminates in a melancholy twist that overturns fairy-tale expectations.

Although Takahata has stated that he wanted to explore crime and punishment in his version of the legend, the film never dwells on how Kaguya came to Earth, or why; instead, the story spans the dramatic stages of a woman’s growth, from carefree moppet to rebellious teenager and finally to sensuous maiden. Kazuo Oga’s art direction runs the gamut in reflecting these phases, with a wide array of gorgeous kimonos and illustration styles. While the protagonist’s beauty is the sine qua non of the story, visualizing it through animation presents a challenge — one the filmmakers meet with a versatility that can make Kaguya look like a girl-next-door type one moment and a figure of regal composure the next.

The only shortcoming of this characterization lies in Kaguya’s relationship with her adopted parents, which doesn’t convey enough genuine affection; nor is her disdain for wealth or suitors given enough of a foundation. Okina, whose vanity could have been explored in greater depth, remains a buffoon.

Tech credits are out of this world. The animation sports a two-dimensional look reminiscent of watercolors, and yet movements flow with exceptional grace; even shots of landscapes and objects sometimes appear to unfold like a scroll. Illustrations of period architecture and props are rendered with diaphanous subtlety, as when Kaguya darts toward the moon, or in the film’s transporting ending, an aesthetic fusion equally inspired by Dun Huang murals and hippie music. Joe Hisaishi’s earthy, folk-inflected score eschews his usual orchestral heaviness.

Yomiuri Shimbun

29 November 2013

Movie Review - ‘Kaguyahime’ adds depth to old fairy tale

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Kaguyahime, or Princess Kaguya, is the heroine of “Taketori Monogatari” (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), which is known as Japan’s oldest narrative. Everyone in Japan knows the story: A baby girl emerged from a shining stalk of bamboo and was raised by an old bamboo cutter, Okina, and his wife, Ouna. But a magical destiny awaits her. It turns out that she came from the moon, and eventually she must return.

“Kaguyahime no Monogatari” (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) is a movie that may surprise viewers who already know the tale, thanks to the creative efforts of director Isao Takahata to transform the unearthly heroine into a flesh-and-blood character.

Why does Kaguyahime come to Earth and return to the moon? The old fairy tale never clearly answers these questions. While some passages offer hints, they were apparently not enough to satisfy Takahata.

The director was unsatisfied with the tale’s silence regarding how Kaguyahime’s feelings change. The key to creating a realistic story and adapting it into an animated film appeared to lie in exploring the heroine’s emotional life.

The most splendid moments of the film are the early scenes set in a mountain village. The baby’s rapid growth is illustrated through the flexibility in her movements. Okina and Ouna are filled with joy as they watch their giggling infant grow up. As she grows into a little girl, she runs around the mountains and becomes fond of an older boy. And what a lively girl she is. What you see on the screen is nothing less than a living, breathing girl.

The film reveals her inner thoughts as she revels in the joy of being alive, then turns into a psychological portrait of the princess after she is brought to the capital in the film’s latter half.

Confined in a house while receiving the education to become a princess, she finds every passing day of her life has become monotonous. She is disillusioned to learn the motives of the noblemen who court her and gradually begins to lose the ability to feel true happiness. As a result, she eventually becomes fed up with life on Earth.

The stark contrast between a carefree life surrounded by nature and the circumscribed life of the city resembles the world we live in today. Innocent children, too, must grow up and adjust to societal norms. Only as grownups do many of us realize the significance of what we’ve lost. Even so, we have no choice but to continue living in this world.

By describing the misfortune of Kaguyahime, who was unable to go on living such a life, Takahata confronts the audience with questions about the meaning of life. In doing so, the director transforms the fairy tale into the life story of a real human being.

The director’s intention to let the audience imagine an alternate story beyond the screen is successfully achieved through his chosen method of expression.

For example, images that appear to be watercolor sketches often contain blank space, giving the audience room for their own imagination to operate. This is part of what might be called “the joy of seeing” for filmgoers.

It was also very surprising to see the princess’ anger conveyed with just a few simple brush strokes. As our eyes have gotten used to images rendered in fine detail, this is rather refreshing.

This is a work that marries animation techniques with profound thought.


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."

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.”

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