Review: “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”

A still from Isao Takahata's "The Tale of Princess Kaguya," here reviewed by film critic Danny Baldwin.Just when all film animation was starting to look the same—one endless barrage of carefully focused-grouped CGI, designed to attract hoards of young American families—one finds renewed hope for the form in Laika’s latest elaborate stop-motion effort, “The Boxtrolls,” and Isao Takata’s “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” which may be the most visually striking movie of the year, period. Takahata, the Studio Ghibli co-founder best known for his WWII weepie “Grave of the Fireflies,” has not made a feature film in fifteen years, and it would hardly be surprising if he spent all of that time painstakingly whittling away at the charcoal and watercolor designs of this visual opus. Hand-drawn and hand-painted, the film’s aesthetic balances the human touch of a passionate artist with the precise control of a master technician.

One could be forgiven for tuning out the dialogue and luxuriating in the pictorial details, which are not simply aesthetically pleasing, but also tell a story of their own. (In fact, with minor alterations, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” could easily play as a silent film.) The images function as impressionistic windows into the inner experience of the eponymous protagonist (voice of Aki Asakura). It may seem counterintuitive to sympathize with a character who magically emerges from the inside of a bamboo shoot, the size of a doll, only to grow rapidly into a young woman who is deemed a princess and forced to live in the seclusion of a mansion fit for nobility, but the film’s contrived 10th century folktale origin does not bar it from relatable humanness. The visuals endow the viewer with a distinct impression of what Kaguya’s existence is like: first in the slow and serene details of the countryside (frogs hopping, children climbing a tree), then in the confinement of the mansion (its rigid architectural geometry at odds with the film’s otherwise flee-flowing aesthetic), and finally in the tragically fantastical (I will refrain from spoilers). A near black-and-white sequence in which an overwhelmed Kaguya storms out of the mansion running, the backgrounds practically collapsing in on her, is especially viscerally emotional in its conveyance of her frustration and determination to live a life of meaning.

One can find an allegory in the film if one seeks it — either about the patriarchal customs of traditional Japanese society (Kaguya’s adoptive father dictates that she become a princess against her wishes), or the soul-crushing nature of the city compared to the country (a motif in Japanese cinema as far back as the tendency films of the 1920s and ’30s), or the double-edged sword of parental protectiveness. But “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is so richly experiential that it seems like a betrayal of the film’s best qualities to reduce it to a tidy list of themes. There is a strong case to be made for just sitting back and taking in the breadth and detail of Takata’s drawings, getting swept up in Joe Hisashi’s mood-driven score. More than any other objective, Takahata seeks for the viewer to simply feel.