Animation has seldom felt so alive and expressive as it does in Princess Kaguya, the latest movie from Studio Ghibli. Fans of Hayao Miyazaki will find this movie delightful, but it's unlike any other Ghibli movie I've seen. This is something truly, heartbreakingly special. See it in theaters. You'll be glad you did.
Minor spoilers ahead...
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, in select theaters now and more theaters this weekend, is based on the famous Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, which every child in Japan grows up knowing some version of. And director Isao Takahata, one of the Ghibli founders, has been trying to make his movie version of it for 55 years and started working on it in earnest 14 years ago. The result is deeply rooted in Japanese traditions, but also manages to be a universal story of coming-of-age and grappling with social expectations.
An old bamboo cutter finds a tiny miniature baby inside a bamboo stalk, and takes her home, deciding that she's a princess sent from Heaven. He and his wife raise her to adulthood, and she quickly becomes a normal-sized human, growing faster than a normal human being. She's a delight to everyone who knows her — but her adoptive father is determined that she should be recognized as a princess, so he takes her to the capital and sets her up in style, using gold and silk kimonos he found inside another bamboo stalk.
There's one major reason to go see Princess Kaguya, and to see it on the big screen — this movie's artwork is just stunning. For all of its two hour-plus length, your eye is drawn to gorgeous image after gorgeous image. In keeping with its fairytale ethos and its rural setting, there are just incredible views of birds and insects and small animals, which burst with life and personality with every motion.
A lot of the art in the film has a hand-drawn look to it, almost like a traditional painting, with heavy brush strokes. This makes the art expressive and personal, in a way that computer animation has a hard time matching — when Princess Kaguya becomes more angry or upset, the lines get heavier and darker, and at times figures go from being fully drawn to being just dark streaks. An expert on both painting and Japanese animation could probably do more to pull apart all the different stylistic quirks that this film is using to present the emotional journey of Princess Kaguya, but suffice to say that my jaw kept dropping at a lot of the powerful, impressionistic frames this movie packs in.
And that's the other thing that's an achievement worth celebrating — this movie packs a lot of emotional power, and makes Princess Kaguya herself into a character with a lot of depth and motivation. This is something that I gather is lacking in the traditional folktale source material, and Takahata has added a lot of development to the magical princess found in the bamboo stalk, creating an intensely moving story in the process.
Part of what's great about Princess Kaguya is that its expressive style helps to show how Kaguya adapts to be whoever the people around her want or expect, especially when she's very young. Her whole body language changes, along with her manner, when she's with her ambitious father versus when she's with her rough-and-tumble friends. This is never remarked on or signposted, it's just shown, effortlessly, through non-verbal cues.
And similarly, as Kaguya grows up and has to deal with capital society and fancy parties and suitors and ever-increasing levels of craziness, a lot of the story is told through her body language and the changing cast of her face. And nothing is ever kept simple in this movie — even as Kaguya is taken away from the people and things she grew up with, she still finds joy in some aspects of her new life in the capital. Which only makes her rage and despair, when they come, that much more poignant.
Even if you're familiar with the original Japanese tale, I think you'll find some heavy-hitting surprises in Takahata's retelling of it, especially in the denouement.
And given that "modernized, updated retellings of classic fairy tales" is a huge area that the movie industry is attempting to explore right now, Princess Kaguya provides a really terrific template. It's respectful towards the source material and adds both strong motivations and emotional complexity to its main character — without undercutting the resonance of the original folktale. In fact, some of Takahata's additions, like the bamboo cutter's insistence that they move to the capital and join the nobility, only make the whole thing feel more fairytale-like.
There's also a hint of a romance, but it's wisely kept to the sidelines, so it adds poignancy rather than providing a sugar-coated distraction.
The other thing I haven't fully conveyed about this film is how funny and silly it is — even with a lot of poetic, beautiful scenes of nature and civilization, Takahata finds room for some really loopy, goofy set pieces and a lot of charmingly odd moments. And true to the Ghibli heritage, there are a bunch of minor side characters who serve as quirky gracenotes.
All in all, The Tale of Princess Kaguya isn't just a masterclass in adapting fairytales to 21st century motion pictures — it's also an incredible work of art, and one of the most unique movies I've seen in ages. These gorgeous images will live in your head for hours afterwards, and you'll probably want to watch it several times. But it's definitely worth seeing for the first time in the theater.