Studio Ghibli is at a real crossroads in its history. The legendary Japanese animation studio has become a respected name even in the West, thanks to a string of classics that trump even Pixar, but last year, the legendary Hayao Miyazaki debuted "The Wind Rises," the film he claims will be his final one (and certainly feels like it's putting a period at the end of a career).
The better news is that Miyazaki's Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, the sort of George Harrison to Miyazaki's Lennon & McCartney, and director of the astonishing "Grave Of The Fireflies," has returned with "The Tale Of Princess Kaguya," his first film since "My Neighbors The Yamadas" in 1999. Given that he's 78, and not hugely prolific, it's possible that this turns out to be Takahata's final film too, and if that's the case, it's just as fitting a finale as "The Wind Rises" was. In fact, it might be even better.
Based on a famous Japanese folklore story, the film begins in the countryside at some time in the past, as a bamboo cutter discovers one magical glowing stalk, which splits open to reveal a tiny creature. He takes it home to his wife, at which point it turns into a human, or at least human-looking baby. Immediately nicknamed 'Princess' by the childless couple, and later officially christened Kaguya, which translates as 'Shining Light,' it begins growing at a remarkably fast rate, and soon grows into a beautiful young woman.
Amazed by their miracle child, and also finding stalks full of gold and beautiful robes, the bamboo cutter decides that his princess is their ticket to high society, uprooting the family from their simple rural community to the big city, forcing his daughter to say goodbye to her friends, including the handsome Sutemaru. After lessons in how to be a noblewoman, word soon spreads about her luminous beauty and wonderful musicianship, and she soon has a string of suitors. Miserably secluded and pining for the countryside, she sets them each seemingly unsolvable tasks in order to win her hand, but soon has much bigger things to worry about, when the Emperor takes a fancy to her.
Yes, it sounds a little bit like "The Odd Life Of Timothy Green." And it's certainly not an event-packed tale, given the two-hour-plus running time. But while it's probably too meditatively paced for the giant robot anime crowd, it doesn't overstay its welcome, and you're pretty happy to sit back and let the film soak over you.
And that's because it's a remarkably gorgeous piece of work, even by Ghibli's high standards. From the off, it's strikingly different to the bulk of the company's output, with a more impressionistic, hand-drawn storybook feel than we're used, reminiscent more of British cartoonist Raymond Briggs ("The Snowman," "When The Wind Blows") than "My Neighbor Totoro."
It takes a moment or two to adjust to the look, but before long, you're completely charmed by it. And crucially, the additional distance from the real world allows Takahata to get weird and experimental in places: one sequence, just about the most beautiful thing we saw at Cannes this year, sees an upset Kaguya flee the family's mansion, transforming into a blur as the landscape becomes black-on-white pencil drawings behind her. It's not just a stunning coup-de-cinema from the director, it's also a brilliant way of getting inside the head of his heroine.
What a heroine, too. Though the environmental themes so often found in Ghibli pictures are here in force, it's the strong feminist tone that really makes it fly. Kaguya is, like most other women in the city, objectified by the men around her, even her father, who uses her as his pass to the aristocracy, and essentially locks her up in a room away from prying eyes (he's not a two-dimensional villain though: what he does he does from love for his daughter to some degree).
And yet Kaguya continually resists being put into the boxes she's being forced in and constantly outwits the men around her. There's only so far she can go, given the patriarchal society around her, but the film's plea for a simpler, more equal life is thoroughly moving (some of the stuff about Mother Moon is more heavy-handed, but pays off at the end).
It's also, to a large extent, about mortality. Given her accelerated growth, one would be fairly safe in assuming that Kaguya won't be long for this world, and a heavy note of inevitable tragedy hangs over the third act: it might be a tough watch for younger kids as a result, though there's a real catharsis that comes from it. It's, again like "The Wind Rises," a filmmaker confronting their age, and coming to terms with what's coming down the line, and it fits nicely in with the lower-key, more realistic tone of Takahata's other work, even if we do have the occasional wood nymph or cloud-dragon (in a stunning, show-stopper of a sequence).
It's true that the film does lull in the middle, with a slightly repetitive quality that may be a deliberate attempt to show Kaguya's captivity, but that doesn't make it less watchable. It's a film about tone as much as anything, and the gorgeous, pastoral quality of the work here has lingered long past the film's ending. Not being a brand name in the same way, Takahata's film won't reach the same kind of audience as "The Wind Rises," but animation fans, and basically anyone else, will find something rich and rewarding if they do check it out. [A-]