"Only now do I finally remember why I came here."
Though they were frequent collaborators and Studio Ghibli cofounders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata were at completely different ends of the anime scale. Miyazaki enjoyed the fantastical genre full of bright colours and a bold presentation such as Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro while Takahata told stories of a more serious and tragic nature, if you only need one example, Grave of the Fireflies (see what I mean). But with one half of the duo gone, does Takahata have to fill in for both sides now?
An ageing woodsman stumbles across a tiny princess in a glowing bamboo stalk and upon taking her home to his wife finds that it grows very quickly, soon becoming an infant, then a child. Over the next few years she grows to become a creature of astonishing beauty and courted by the wealthiest and most powerful men in Japan.
Studio Ghibli is no stranger to crafting beautiful animated creations, but this could be their best yet in terms of style. It’s certainly not the same look as Totoro or Spirited Away, but there’s a more whimsical look with outlines that aren’t as clearly defined that allow the colours to blend and interact in a stunning way, as if a watercolour painting suddenly sprung to life on screen. I try not to use the term beautiful too much when describing films from Ghibli because it is an overused term when it comes to the look of them. But I have to say it because the film is so striking and unique, yet somehow natural, that it really is one of the most beautiful creations of animation this century, possibly of all time.
But like I said, is Takahata trying to cover both ends of the spectrum here? Well it certainly has that fantasy element that Miyazaki treasured so much. The colours and contrast make it look… yeah, it’s difficult not to use that word. Let’s just say that the imagination behind the entire film is inspired, full of wonderful characters and amazing aspects that make it a magnificent visual and mental spectacle.
What about the substance behind the style though? There’s a lot of that as well, being Takahata is might be more mature, but only if you’re not familiar with Ghibli’s work then it is certainly unusually deep in terms of drama. But of course if you are familiar then it’s about the level you would expect from their work. It’s on par with Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro, and they’re both a walk in the park compared to Grave of the Fireflies.
Not to say that Princess Kaguya is short of dramatic depth. There are plenty of mature elements that crop up particularly as our title character must abandon her simple, but enjoyable life and take up the role as a princess. This is where the drama really starts and if anything (here’s where the true genius of the film lies), even though we are introduced to a magical realm, it is at this point where it feels like we lose a bit of the wonder and whimsy deliberately. It’s like the exact opposite of the Princess Diaries.
At times the supporting characters can feel slightly simplified, but there was enough drama focussed on the princess for me to forget that very minor flaw. It knows that she is the centre of the story and as long as the main emotional empathy is targeted to her, I could remain attached to the story as a whole. The plot feels a bit stretched to take it to the two hour runtime that it was clearly aiming for long before a script was ever produced. Some scenes run a bit thin and others drag slightly, but these are minor problems.
Make no mistake, there is some real, raw emotional power displayed frequently in Princess Kaguya, but there’s also enough magic to entertain, fascinate and amaze us throughout.