TIFF 2014: Charmed by Studio Ghibli's 'The Tale of Princess Kaguya'
by Alex Billington
September 9, 2014
As a die-hard Studio Ghibli fanboy, I always feel like I'm way behind when I finally see the latest film they originally released a year ago in Japan. But I'm so glad I finally caught up with Isao Takahata's The Tale of Princess Kaguya, originally released in Japan in November of 2013, but just now making its way to North America thanks to the Toronto Film Festival. I'm even happier I saw the original version with Japanese dialogue and English subtitles, the way it was meant to be seen, rather than the dubbed version coming up for the US. It's a wonderful film, incredibly charming and so much fun to watch. Of course, the animation is remarkably beautiful, unlike anything I've seen before - hand-animated to look like old watercolor scrolls.
Based on the classic Japanese folk story of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the film tells the full story of the life of Princess Kaguya on Earth. Found glowing inside a bamboo stalk by a humble bamboo cutter, his life is suddenly changed and he decides to raise the beautiful girl with his wife. She grows up very quickly, a bit mischievous and preferential to rolling around with animals and nature than any other humans, but is so beautiful she suddenly becomes the object of affection for the most powerful men in Japan. Brought into the royal world, her parents try to make her into the princess she is supposed to be, but she prefers to be goofy, free-spirited and anti-establishment, which leads to all kinds of trouble. You'll laugh and never stop smiling.
While the film is obviously aimed at a younger audience, it's one of those timeless stories told perfectly that connect with any person of any age. I am curious how much it's influenced by a free-spirited shift in Japan, or rather is the influencer of that shift, in-so-much that it supports eschewing formalities and plays up the idea of being free. Like the wind, like nature, like the beasts, and birds, and bees. Watching her act this way, while keeping it light so kids are never bored, is so much fun. That's not to say it doesn't have a serious side, about how society tells us that we have to act a certain way when sometimes it's better to be free, to act on our will. The best scenes are the ones where she reacts in unexpected ways and everyone else is baffled.
With so much recent discussion about the future of Studio Ghibli, it's refreshing to just sit back, relax and enjoy a wonderful film from the studio. Takahata is a tremendously talented filmmaker who can balance many different aspects: the beauty of animation, the rigors of society, the delicacies of storytelling, and the entertainment value of cinema. He does so with such elegance that it's at times breathtaking, other times touching, but always thoroughly fulfilling to watch The Tale of Princess Kaguya. The animation alone, so marvelously realized with moments that will leave you in awe, is worth your time. Ghibli ain't done yet, and even though their future may be uncertain, at least the astonishing quality of their work remains consistent.
Alex's TIFF 2014 Rating: 8.8 out of 10
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