Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Ghibli Princess

Isao Takahata is the other founder of Studio Ghibli, alongside the much more renowned Hayao Miyazaki. His masterpiece "Grave of the Fireflies," is an indisputed classic, but otherwise his films have had far less press and attention than Miyazaki's work. This isn't surprising as Takahata's films tend to be less accessible, and often involve very specific aspects of Japanese culture that can be difficult to translate. He's also less prolific, and much harder to categorize as a director. While most fans can identify a Miyazaki film within a few minutes, Takahata's style seems to change for every production. None of his Ghibli features have the same art style, and some are wildly different from each other.

His latest, "The Tale of Princess Kaguya," is a good example. It resembles no other Ghibli film, and I'm hard pressed to think of any other animated project that looks or feels quite like it. Retelling the Japanese folk tale of a bamboo cutter who finds a magical baby girl in a bamboo stalk, the whole film is designed to look like Japanese ink brush paintings. All the line work and the color palette reflect this, especially in the occasional pauses that the film takes to let us simply look at and enjoy the natural scenery. The princess herself, called Little Bamboo as a child and Kaguya when she's older, has the eyes and face of a typical Ghibli heroine, but her expressions and her movements are rendered so much more artfully. The amount of detail in the deceptively simple visuals, especially the sequences that feature a lot of quick motion, is extraordinary.

The film follows the life of its heroine from a laughing baby to a conflicted young woman, who struggles against the social expectations of being a noble. Her adoptive father believes Kaguya's happiness is dependent on rising to a high station, but she wants to remain free from the many suitors who vie to win her hand. A thoughtful character study of a popular figure from Japanese legend, the focus on her inner turmoil helps to carry the lengthy film through an episodic structure with a lot of loose ends. Kaguya may be a fairy tale princess, but her woes are deep ones about love and loss and family. And they are dealt with seriously, resulting in great empotional impact.

At the same time, this is one of the funniest and most lighthearted Ghibli films, with a lot of emphasis on caricature and physical humor. Aside from Kaguya and her childhood sweetheart Sutemaru, all the characters are wildly exaggerated in form. Kaguya's adoptive parents are squat, dumpling-shaped, and look like they'd be more at home in Takahata's domestic comedy "My Neighbors the Yamadas." The flaws of the noble suitors are immediately revealed in the way certain features have been emphasized. My favorite character is Kaguya's chubby little maid, who never says much, but provides plenty of comic relief.

I love a film that can show me something I haven't seen before, and that's why "Princess Kaguya" is my favorite Ghibli film in years. I admired "The Wind Rises" and "Arietty," but they were both well-tread ground for the studio, and too many elements were very familiar. There are certainly some familiar bits of design work and story themes in "Princess Kaguya," but I've never seen anything like Kaguya's flight from the capital, done in a frenzy of rough charcoal lines that emphasize pure speed and motion. And the character animation in the joyous sequence where the baby princess learns to crawl, and then walk within only a few minutes.

Though he's made no announcement, it's likely that this is Isao Takahata's last animated film. It took him over a decade to complete "The Tale of Princess Kaguya," and at the age of 79 he's older and has had a longer film career than Miyazaki. I'm grateful that he managed to leave us with a final feature that hit ever so much harder than I expected it to. And has left absolutely no doubt in my mind that Studio Ghibli truly was built on the work of two auteurs, who have both done so much to advance the art of animation.

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