Everyone who claims to know anything about cinema these days has heard of Studio Ghibli, I would hope, and the Ghibli name is most often associated with Hayao Miyazaki, whose films have been praised to heavens (and rightfully so). But Ghibli also has Isao Takahata, who is a co-founder of the studio and just as good as Miyazaki, if not better: his body of work shows amazing range, from the war movie „Grave of the Fireflies”- the best anime that nobody wants to see twice, to environmentalist fantasy in „Pom Poko”, realistic drama in „Only Yesterday”, comedy in „My Neighbours the Yamadas” etc. And Takahata’s latest film, „The tale of Princess Kaguya”, deserves every bit as much recognition as other much-loved Ghibli films; in fact, if it doesn’t win the Best Animated Feature Oscar (and it probably won’t), we may safely conclude that there is no justice in the world.
The titular Kaguya is a miraculous child found in the forest and raised in the family of a humble bamboo cutter. After encountering gifts of gold and expensive garments for her in other tree stumps, the bamboo cutter is convinced that his adoptive daughter is meant for the high society life of a noble princess. Kaguya has to move to the city and learn elegant manners, which she finds stifling to her spirit, but word of her beauty spreads and she attracts a large number of noble suitors asking for her hand in marriage, including the emperor himself. Yet none of this is bringing her happiness.
„Princess Kaguya” is based on a well-known Japanese legend; so well-known, in fact, that even I had heard of it in my distant homeland of Romania (I read it in a volume of world legends and myths when I was a child). I am aware that I could not ever hope to grasp its full meaning as well as a Japanese person, but there are aspects to the story that are universal in human nature and society: the people who love us will not necessarily be able to understand us. Kaguya’s adoptive father adores her, but he is blind to her true wishes. Men are fascinated with her, but the only way they can show their appreciation for her otherworldliness is to try and turn her into an ordinary woman, a wife or a concubine subjected to their ownership. The beauty procedures and behavior expected of elegant ladies go against the essence of Kaguya’s joy for living a simple life, and the class differences which are imposed on her take her away from her childhood friends. And there is no way out of these traps without causing suffering to herself and to others, such as a young man who dies in an attempt to bring her a possibly fictional treasure as a marriage gift.
„Kaguya” is a deeply adult film, in a way that I haven’t seen in many films that proclaim themselves „adult” (and no wonder, since „adult” in cinema too often seems to mean simply scenes of excessive violence and objectified nudity). Even though it is set in a world of magic, it does not offer any magical solutions: our heroine cannot return to the place of her happy youth, since it has moved on without her; she cannot turn back time, fix everything that is broken, regain everything that she has lost. Time moves forward, for better or for worse, and Kaguya’s ultimate escape is not joyful, but rather inevitable, like anything else in the circle of life. And yet I would not describe the film as bleak in any way: Kaguya gets to know the sadness of human existence on Earth, but she also gets to understand some of its joys.
Visually, „Kaguya” is beautiful, like a book of watercolour paintings. A sequence in which the protagonist storms out of her palace is an amazing display of movement and energy, with looks like a series of pencil sketches and nevertheless has more „life” in it than a lot of the super-polished animation we see in mainstream Western films. It’s also good proof that anime does definitely not all look the same, like some detractors like to say!
In a nutshell, SEE THIS MOVIE. It’s not „just a cartoon”, but an excellent, compelling piece of cinema.