Let’s be honest, Studio Ghibli is the greatest animation studio that is, ever was, and ever will be – plain and simple. No beating around the bush here, folks. Their track record of churning out masterwork after masterwork is unparalleled in modern cinema. The fact that they’ve entered into a (hopefully temporary) retirement, while peddlers of dreck like DC and Marvel have their entire outputs lined up and planned into the next decade is positively maddening. And The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is yet another home run for them; a modern masterpiece of animation and compelling storytelling, all wrapped up into a positively gorgeous package. Thine eyes hath gazed upon the glory of Studio Ghibli once more, and an already strong year for animated films becomes even more impressive.
Studio co-founder Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday) directs a brand new interpretation of Japan’s most famous folktale in this gorgeous, hand-drawn epic; a project which has been literally decades in the making for him. Found inside a shining stalk of bamboo by an old bamboo cutter and his wife, a tiny infant girl grows into an alluring young woman, similarly aging rapidly like a bamboo stalk. The film follows her and her surrogate parents throughout most of her childhood and early adolescence, but eventually slows down and focuses primarily on her mid-teen years for the final 2/3. This mysterious young woman enthralls all who encounter her, but ultimately she must confront her true origins, coupled with having a life of royalty as a princess thrust upon her against her will.
Right from the opening frames, this film is gorgeous to behold. It almost seems redundant to point out how beautiful Studio Ghibli’s animation is at this point, with there being so many wonderful looking films in their canon. But even by their already high standards, the animation in this film is truly magnificent, both from a technical and stylistic standpoint. Vivid and purposefully sketchy all at once, even by Ghibli’s already high standards, this is one of their best looking films yet, and longtime Ghibli fans will be able to recognize Joe Hisaishi’s lush musical score in a heartbeat. Some more hardened film fans will bemoan the death of creativity and lack of originality in modern filmmaking until the cows come home. And while this might be true if you’re solely focusing on the output of modern Hollywood and English-language features only, the mere existence of this film singlehandedly proves that innovation and genuine creative originality are alive and well in world cinema. Unless you’ve already seen director Isao Takahata’s previous film My Neighbors the Yamadas, I can guarantee that you’ve never seen or experienced anything like this film before.
Also interesting to note is how, unlike many of Studio Ghibli’s previous animated films, Disney hasn’t picked this one up for North American distribution. Which is pretty odd, considering that they’ve released almost all of Ghibli’s previous films, save for a few obvious exceptions. Rather, it was picked up by a fellow animation friendly studio named G-Kids who, if I don’t say so myself, have done a rather timid job rolling this one out to be seen by anyone who doesn’t live in Los Angeles, New York City, or Philadelphia. But Disney’s dismissal of this one might have to do with it possibly being the single most anti-princess animated film ever made. For all the hype surrounding last year’s Frozen for its alleged sending up of established gender roles in their classic Disney structure, it still adhered to a pretty typical princess tale formula, whereas The Tale of the Princess Kaguya has no such allegiance, and therefore has more freedom to tell a story which explores the hollowness and draining nature of the princess lifestyle, at least in the more classical cinematic sense. For all its technical mastery, this is a film that also contains some very raw emotion and an appreciable amount of substance at its core, in addition to all the visual bells and whistles.
In case it hasn’t been made clear enough already, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is simply not to be missed, especially for fans of animation, or anything fantasy related that doesn’t necessarily contain hours worth of epic battles. And being that this currently stands as the second-to-last film Studio Ghibli has released before retiring (which makes it potentially their second-to-last film ever), it should be celebrated all the more as the wonderful piece of filmmaking that it is.