Dispatches From Fantastic Fest: The Tale Of Princess Kaguya
Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement received plenty of press attention this year, being one of the most beloved filmmakers in the world will tend to have that effect. The fact that Isao Takahata also made what will almost certainly be his final film was less commented upon. That this retirement received less attention was perhaps inevitable which is not to say fair. If you know Takahata it is probably as the director of Grave Of Fireflies, AKA I Seem To Have Something In My Eye. Takahata arguably made as much an impact on what we think of as Ghibli as Miyazaki did and his final feature is a testament to the richness of the voice and arguably the artform, that we are losing. And yeah he takes the time to shank your emotions one last time on his way out the door.
The Tale Of Princess Kaguya is based on a story from Japanese Folklore. Telling the story of an elderly bamboo cutter who finds a child within a stalk of bamboo. He and his wife decide to raise the child, who ages at an accelerated rate and proves a prodigy at everything she does. This leads her father to decide that the child must try and join the royal court, uprooting the girl from her idyllic country upbringing and introducing her to the rituals and vagaries of high society. A move that draws the attention of the powers that be and in the process dooms them.
To call The Tale Of Princess Kaguya gorgeous seems like rank understatement. The film is painstakingly animated and genuinely looks like nothing I’ve ever seen. The closest I can come to describing it is like a moving watercolor with the intimacy and energy of a pencil test. The technique is simultaneously impressionistic, (parts of the frame are often left purposefully blank) and expressionistic (exploding into a fury of abstract emotion). It’s the kind of versatility of style that you can only accomplish with hand drawn animation; which means that Princess Kaguya is probably one of the last of its kind.
After a brief renaissance Disney has reshuttered it’s 2D feature department. No other American studio even feigns being interested in 2D feature animation anymore. Ghibli has effectively turned itself into a brand management company. Barring some kind of bizarre and unprecedented sea change it’s doubtful that we will ever see anything of the intricacy and scale of Princess Kaguya again.
But as far as swan songs go you could scarcely ask for a better one. Kaguya is an out an out treasure of a film. It’s lovely and funny and melancholy and beautiful and true. It showcases the true wonder of handrawn animation, the ability to replicate the smallest, most intimate of gesture and human behavior and scenes of such scale and imagination that they could only be created with pen and paper. It is more than a last great film from a great filmmaker. It is like watching an entire artform eulogize itself. Pay your respects.