Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review - The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Guess what: Today is Isao Takahata's birthday! What better day to review his latest film.

Apart from his 1988 masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies, the works of animator Isao Takahata have never had much exposure in North America. They may have less crossover appeal than other outputs from Studio Ghibli – the revered and beloved Tokyo-based anime company that brought us My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, among others – because his are less dazzling in a fantastical sense.

Nevertheless, Takahata has built a superb resume over the last thirty years at Ghibli. So what a rare and special treat it is then, to be able to see his latest (and possibly last) feature in theatres: The somewhat slow but visually splendid The Tale of Princess Kaguya. The narrative itself is a simple one (perhaps too much so to justify this film's leisurely 140-minute runtime), but Takahata gleans from it several adult themes about the pursuit of happiness, truth and artifice, and the cyclic yet finite nature of life.
As told in "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter", a Japanese folktale that dates back to the 10th century, the title princess was borne out of a bamboo chute, small enough to fit in the palm of the hand of the humble woodsman who discovered her. The bamboo cutter and his wife (dubbed by James Caan and Mary Steenburgen) take this miracle to be a blessing from heaven, and raise the girl as their own.

To their amazement, the child (whom they have named Princess) seems to age at a remarkably accelerated rate, growing from infancy so rapidly as to warrant the nickname "Li'l Bamboo" from the local village children. It's a poignant and magical metaphor for the brevity of childhood, and indeed, of our time on this earth – just one of the numerous ideas with which this fable deals.

As Princess quickly evolves into a beautiful young woman (dubbed by Chloe Grace Moretz), her adoptive parents move her to a palace in the city so that she may grow up a true princess, not merely in name but in title. Her father and her tutor seem to believe they are grooming her for a life of happiness, but not even the finest robes nor the wealthiest suitors can replace the life of simple pleasures she left behind. Instead, they only make Princess feel that she's been warped into something she is not.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is far from perfect, and the story it tells is so culturally specific that it may prove a tough sell to general audiences. East Asian folklore obviously doesn't bend to the conventions of what we would consider "high-concept" narrative structure, and consequently lags here or there. At times, the pace is downright glacial.

But where such a patient, vignette-driven construct would normally strain one's attention, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is never less than arresting due to its lovely aesthetic (and there aren't many movies that can get by on looks alone!).

Using muted watercolours and coloured pencils, Takahata eschews the hard lines and more fluent animatic style of his famous Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, although he certainly shares his colleague's preoccupation with nature. His rural landscapes are elegantly achieved, painted with basic white backgrounds and soft edges that bleed into the borders of every frame, thus directing our focus to the shapes and colours therein.

And oh, what colours! More so than any Ghibli film to precede it (and that's saying something given the studio's stunning filmography), the colour palette on display here is utterly exquisite. The desaturated pastilles truly pop, though not from boldness of hue or brightness of shade, but from the careful selectivity with which they were chosen to either blend or contrast with each other in combination.

What truly makes Takahata's work stand out is his interest in exploring alternative media and techniques afforded him by the liberty of hand-drawn animation. He breaks style momentarily at isolated points throughout the film, adopting a new one depending on the tone of the scene.

He delivers, for instance, a swift yet jaw-dropping dream sequence in the story's second chapter, rendered in agitated charcoal drawings that mirror our heroine's frustration and anguish. The other flourishes of his artistic imagination are best left discovered by the viewer, but needless to say, the movie is replete with them.
Animation buffs the world over got some bad news this past August with the revelation that Studio Ghibli was going on indefinite hiatus in the wake of Miyazaki's retirement. As it stands, The Tale of Princess Kaguya may be the company's final film for a very long time.

But even if the studio eventually does come back in full swing, it's all too real a possibility that, at 79 years of age, it may certainly be the last film directed by Takahata. Indeed, one can't help but detect in its emotionally saturated finale that the man is saying goodbye.

Everything that starts – a childhood, a career, a lifetime – eventually ends. We can fight it about as much as we can keep the moon from spinning around the Earth... Or, we can accept time's natural ebb and flow with grace, and choose to go softly into that good night when our time is up. If The Tale of Princess Kaguya does represent Isao Takahata's swan song, then I can only follow that example, bid him farewell and thank him for leaving us a rich and enduring legacy.

*** out of ****

1 comment:

  1. With this, How To Train Your Dragon 2, The LEGO Movie, The Boxtrolls and from what I've been hearing about Big Hero 6, we have five terrific contenders for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. This looks like it is the most diverse, interesting, and, well, the greatest year of animation, I think ever. As huge a fan of animation I am, I think this race is simply too close to call this year. And it's somewhat ironic that this was the year Pixar chose NOT to release anything.