Like most folktales, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter has its origins traced all the way back to oral traditions; in this case, those of the 10th-century Japanese people. Therefore, it is a story that was born and grew up with no defined visual pattern, as the lines that defined its characters and the shapes that built its scenarios were left up to the imagination of those who heard the script being told.
Due to that, when Studio Ghibli – more specifically, the gifted director Isao Takahata – chose to pick that story as the source of inspiration for the studio’s nineteenth feature film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, settling down on an art style that would be able to channel the age-old spirit of the tale and its deeply folkloric roots must have been quite a challenge. Differently from most of the other films created by the company, this was not just fiction; it was a story so ancestral its borders with reality have been blurred with the passing of time.
As the man behind the quirky My Neighbors the Yamadas, Takahata was not a stranger to unique aesthetics, and by combining that movie’s minimalistic animation with Japanese watercolor paintings, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is given a look that, more than gorgeous and original, perfectly conveys the source from which the plot drinks. As if by the capturing of some spiritual residue from the 10th-century, Ghibli is able to transmit the idea of folk tradition so flawlessly that even those unaware of the movie’s origins will understand it is supposed to be the coming-to-life of an ancient tale.
That untouchable timeless energy the visuals ooze with every passing second turns out to be very representative of the movie, because differently from Disney, which usually uses existing stories as extremely loose inspirations, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is almost a direct retelling of the original plot. Even though Takahata does take some deviations, which are mostly for the better, the script’s course is basically the same.
While in a grove, a bamboo cutter comes across a glowing shoot. Naturally drawn to the curious phenomenon, he approaches it and discovers – peacefully protected by the plant – a doll-like thumb-sized princess. After being found, the mysterious being quickly transforms into a baby and the man decides to take her home and raise her as his child alongside his wife.
She eventually earns the nickname Little Bamboo from the other kids of the pastoral region due to her astonishingly rapid growth; within a few seasons, she develops from an infant to a beautiful teenager. Her wild, caring, and free-spirited nature quickly allows her to develop a strong friendship bound with many of those around her, and a especially colorful innocent relationship with Sutemaru, the oldest boy of her gang.
After the cheerful and magical first act, the movie – following the directions of the original tale – takes a turn towards somewhat clichéd waters when the girl’s father finds, inside some of the very same grove on which he had found his daughter, gold and expensive cloth pouring out of other glowing shoots. He takes it as a heavenly sign indicating that the girl is to lead the life of a princess, and then promptly decides to move from the country towards the city, hence abruptly ending the girl’s childhood.
As it often happens, due to the ties that bind her society and the expectations of her father – who thinks his daughter’s happiness is tied to marriage, not to mention his somewhat selfish cravings for a better social position – she is forced to learn how to behave like a lady and choose a husband.
Despite that structure, though, taking The Tale of the Princess Kaguya as yet another re-telling of the conflict between a rebellious daughter who does not wish to conform versus a family that sees her attitude as imprudent, sinful, and disrespectful is absolutely wrong.
For starters, in spite of her father’s search for husband candidates of the highest rank – something he easily achieves due to the girl’s legendary beauty, her family never gains the villainous contours movies of that kind tend to give them. They know their daughter is a gift from the heavens and their love for her transcends the distinct demeanor she exposes. They are purely good-hearted and want her to be happy badly, they just do not know where to look – sometimes because of humane flaws, and in other occasions due to their inability to grasp her spiritual complexion.
Secondly, and this is the point where the movie truly shines and resonates as one of the best flicks ever put out by the studio, Princess Kaguya is far from an ordinary girl. There is an otherworldly line that follows the movie through every second. Although she lives a relatively normal life, the initial lack of explanation for her quick growth, her mysterious appearance in the bamboo grove, her unparalleled beauty, the supernatural occurrences in her life, and the fact Kaguya herself is ignorant to her true origins linger.
That spiritual and non-natural undertow, however, is kept on the background during the movie’s first two earthly acts (her rural childhood and her sad life as a princess in the city), staying up and alive on viewer’s minds. On the last act, though, supernaturalism masterfully comes to the forefront, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya comes together; it completes its journey towards a deserved masterpiece status.
The pieces fall into place in typical Ghibli fashion. There is a strong level of happiness when truth surfaces, but that pure joy exists within sadness and adversity. While the hostile environment that surrounds such magic makes it even more beautiful, after all, high peaks become even higher when they are preceded by lows that reach the bottom of the darkest pits; there is no other way around it, it is a bittersweet conclusion that leans heavily to the sour.
With visuals that, in a fantastic touch, gain detail as the story itself gains complexity and clarity, as if both art and script held hands in order to follow the same crescendo; The Tale of the Princess Kaguya ultimately reveals itself to be concerned with the search for happiness, the fast closing of the gates of opportunity, the finite brevity of our lives, and the fact that – even in the midst of a harsh quest for happiness – it is possible to create positive bonds of love and friendship.
It should be no surprise to anyone that follows Studio Ghibli closely that The Tale of the Princess Kaguya thrives on the same subdued emotional roller-coaster filled with sensitivity and delicacy that is the unmistakable DNA of most of their works. It carries the same thought-provoking and tear-inducing qualities of movies like Spirited Away and Grave of the Fireflies, while pairing them up with the mundane problems of From Up on Poppy Hill and Whisper of the Heart.
However, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya differs from those efforts by the placing of numerous messages and lessons in the same package via the uniting of two wildly distinct currents: the earthly and the spiritual. It keeps its best cards on its sleeve until the time is right, and when it unleashes them, it is able to create effects that are both awe-inspiring and devastating.