Visually magnificent but simple-minded and overlong, Isao Takahata’s adaptation of an ancient Japanese folk tale—a tenth-century text called “Teketori monogaturi”—will enthrall everyone with its evocative images but probably task the patience of anybody not already acquainted with, and fascinated by, the story it tells.
Kaguya (voiced by Aki Asakura) is the princess of the moon, who descends to earth into a bamboo stalk in the form of a tiny, doll-like urchin, where she’s discovered in a glowing flower by an elderly woodsman named Okina (Takeo Chii) and raised as a foundling by him and his wife Ona (Nobuko Miyamoto). They call her Princess, but she’s dubbed Takenoko (Little Bamboo) by the other children in the neighborhood because of her sudden and inexplicable growth spurts. Among the youngsters she plays blissfully with Sutemaru (Kengo Kora), a young huntsman who soon becomes infatuated with the striking girl.
Okina, however, makes another discovery in the bamboo field: a stalk containing gold and silken garments. He takes this to mean that heaven intends his daughter to be treated as a literal princess, and so he and his wife use the gold to take her to the capital and install her in a mansion, where she’ll be instructed in the niceties of high society by governess Sagami (Atsuko Takahata). Through the agency of court official Akita (Tatekawa Shinosuke), news of her beauty circulates, and soon suitors of the highest class vie for her hand. But she puts them off by assigning each some seemingly impossible task related to his flowery speech in favor of his candidacy—the depiction of their efforts to comply offers some roustabout humor, as does the portrayal of the bumbling Okina’s efforts to fit in with court society.
Matters turn darker, however, when the emperor himself (Shichinosuke Nakamura II) becomes interested in Kaguya—and shows himself a demanding suitor indeed. The story’s tone grows still less genial as Kaguya tries to escape into her happier past and reunites with Sutemaru, only to find that time has changed their relationship. And the conclusion, in which her sojourn away from her own kingdom must come to an end, has a bittersweet air.
“The Tale of Princess Kaguya” suggests a good many lessons one can take from it—the pressure felt by children to conform to parental expectations and social conventions, the cruel effect of societal categorization and gross materialism, the ultimate impossibility of bridging the chasms that exist between different worlds. But in the end the narrative seems to simply be about the “cycle of life,” in the “Lion King” sense—the way in which human existence passes from milestone to milestone, as perceived from the perspective of an outsider who can’t experience it in quite the same way herself.
But what one is likely to take away from it isn’t so much the messages, but the luscious look of the images, with their watercolor effect and their luminous glow. The artistry of Takahata’s long-time base at Studio Ghibli, represented by his colleagues Keisuke Nakamura (cinematography), Kazuo Ogo (art direction), Kenichi Konishi (illustration), Maiko Ueno (animation), Osamu Tanabe (graphic and character design) and Tomonari Shima (visual effects), is in dazzling evidence here. One can simply immerse oneself in the visuals without worrying overmuch about what the film might be trying to say about self-discovery amid conflicting demands from outside, and perhaps that’s the best way for western viewers in particular to approach it.
Of particular note to parents who might be inclined to take very young children to the film: it’s subtitled rather than dubbed, so that might be a difficulty for them.