Director: Isao Takahata (Studio Ghibli)
Runtime: 137 minutes
2013 saw both the co-founders of Studio Ghibli retiring almost simultaneously much to our dismay. While Hayao Miayazaki ended his run with The Wind Rises, Kaguyahime No Monogatari was Isao Takahata’s final film and he could not have retired with a better film.
Now, this isn’t a review. I don’t think I could articulate well enough to review this particular gem, in fact, I feel woefully inadequate. What this is, is me trying to sum up all the things that I loved about this film and hope that it makes sense and gives you some sense of what the film is about.
Kaguyahime No Monogatari is based on a Japanese folk tale where a woodcutter finds a little girl in a bamboo flower. He takes her home, believing that she is a gift from the gods and that she must be raised as a princess. Blessed with riches, he soon uproots his family to a city and starts preparing his daughter to be a princess.
Kaguyahime No Monogatari is one of those exceedingly rare films that stay with the viewer long after they’re over. It explores so many themes that it is hard to sum them all up while still doing them justice. There is a lingering sense of grief that’s present from beginning to end. Even in its happiest moments, you know that things aren’t going to end well.
One of the main themes the film explores is one about a parent’s idea of his/her child’s happiness. In the film, the Bamboo Cutter is convinced that his daughter is a divine gift and thus a princess. He takes her away from their rural home, moves them to the city to make sure that she can be taught the graces of a highborn lady. He is convinced that he’s doing this for his daughter, for her happiness. But he never stops to ask what she wants. He doesn’t realise that she was happiest in their little, dilapidated village home, playing in the bamboo forest and the surrounding fields. He fails to see her misery in the city where she can never go outside, she is a prisoner in her own house, it is a beautiful house, a beautiful cage, but a cage nonetheless. He is so blinded by his own ambition that he can’t see that his daughter is a mere shadow of herself. He wants her to be a princess when all she wants is a simple life.
With regard to the father, he isn’t demonized. He clearly loves his daughter, he’s just lost sight of her happiness in the glare of his own ambition. He is so focused on improving his station and his social standing that he convinces himself into believing that it’s all for this daughter. In his quest for Kaguya’s ‘happiness’, he actually makes her deeply miserable.
The only person who sees and understands her pain, is her mother who is powerless to do anything about it. She helps in her own way, ferrying away Kaguya to their old village home and taking her outside their palatial house, giving her a measure of peace away from prying eyes, but at the end of the day, they must return to the city. She tries to intervene on Kaguya’s behalf numerous times but is silenced because the final decision rests with her husband. Theirs is a beautiful relationship, if not for her, Kaguya would have fled with the Celestial Beings even sooner.
One can’t help but feel the same helplessness that Kaguya’s mother experiences looking at her. Her exuberant spirit is stifled under all those kimonos and what is socially acceptable and what isn’t. She very nearly becomes a porcelain doll, beautiful to behold but dead inside. Her own beauty is a weapon used against her, adding yet another wall between her and the rest of the world. She is seen as a possession, an object to be acquired, yet those vying for her hand, know nothing of her own feelings and wants. The life that she wanted was denied to her. She was living the life of a princess and she hated every minute of it.
Kaguyahime No Monogatari was Takahata’s labour of love. It took him eight years to finish the film and its beauty and depth are a testament to his hard work paying off. The animation is another stunning aspect of the film. It looks so different from the animation we see these days, not just in terms of anime but also Western animation. This style almost marks a return to simpler styles of animation even with regards to hand-drawn animation. We aren’t given all the information when we look at a frame from Kaguyahime No Monogatari. There is beauty and bright colours but we aren’t inundated with details the way we are with the other animated films. The absence of those details gives the viewer the chance to fill in those blanks from his/her own imagination, making for a more rewarding viewing experience. The human figures also appear a little skewed, and some might even call them crude when compared to other animated films, but they only add to the film because they highlight the characters’ emotions.
Every frame looks like a watercolour painting with broad strokes of charcoal. There are scenes where it almost feels like one can see the texture of the paper. Some of the scenes are reminiscent of the old Japanese scroll paintings. What was also stunning was the way they captured Kaguya’s state of mind, where the colour slowly leeches away from the frame leaving only bold charcoal lines with just one source of bright colour (usually red) which immediately draws the viewer’s eye to Kaguya. The level of detail also diminishes with each passing frame which heightens the sense of speed as well urgency while also conveying Kaguya’s desperation. Additionally, the dream sequences in this film are among the best I’ve ever seen, be it live-action or animation.
One cannot speaks about Kaguyahime No Monogatari without mentioning the spellbinding score, composed by the brilliant Joe Hisaishi. The score for most Ghibli films is beautiful but this one is especially so. Like the style of animation, the music too is an integral part of the film adding to its beauty and amplifying the emotions on screen. Here’s Joe Hisaishi conducting the New Japan Philharmonic World Dream Orchestra, performing the scoundtrack for Kaguyahime No Monogatari. It is beautiful and a real treat to watch.
Kaguyahime No Monogatari is one of the best animated films to come out of Studio Ghibli and easily one of the best animated films I have ever seen. It is visually stunning and thematically deep and intense and has so many layers that every viewing reveals something new. It is also an example of a film where all the the different aspects of the film were perfectly in sync and made for one beautiful film.