Studio Ghibli’s latest animated film, based on Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, is charming and beautiful, though some might find it overlong and lacking in excitement. It is perhaps more suitable for adults than children.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a departure from the visual style used in previous Studio Ghibli films such as Spirited Away (2001) and last year’s The Wind Rises. Director-screenwriter Isao Takahata mostly uses a watercolour palette of pale greens, browns and pinks to produce exquisite backgrounds. The broad brushstrokes used to paint the characters gives them more humanity; they are sometimes a little rough around the edges and bring to mind Oliver Postgate’s Noggin the Nog.
When a bamboo cutter (voiced by James Caan in the dubbed version) finds a tiny girl in a glowing bamboo shoot, he sees her as a blessing from heaven and decides she must be a princess. He takes her home and he and his wife (Mary Steenbergen) bring her up as their own child. ‘Little Bamboo’ grows in front of their eyes and is given her nickname by the local kids, who also think she’s ‘weird’. They all have an idyllic time playing together in the woods and mountainside. The oldest boy, Sutemaru (Darren Criss) saves her from a wild boar and they develop a close relationship. Their joy in nature is summed up by the song they sing: ‘birds, bugs, beasts, grass and trees / teach people how to feel.’
But when the bamboo cutter discovers gold and rainbows of robes in the shoots he is cutting, he takes it as another sign that he must build a mansion in the capital and dress in finery. They move to the city. A name is given to his princess – Kaguya, meaning ‘light’ and ‘life’ – and she is tutored by a governess in high-born etiquette: ‘a noble princess would never frolic, perspire or scream.’ Kaguya (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a feisty, independent heroine from a long line of strong Ghibli female characters. At first she refuses to pluck her eyebrows and blacken her teeth, but her spirit is gradually worn down.
As princely suitors queue up to woo her, the princess buys some time by telling them to find the mythical jewels and objects that they have compared her with. Only then will she be their true treasure. But Kaguya’s heart is with Sutemaru, back in the village where she grew up. Will she ever find him again? And what is her secret? Where is she really from?
At two and a quarter hours The Tale of the Princess Kaguya will have small children (and some adults) fidgeting in their seats. Charming and beautiful can only take you so far in a film like this, when we often yearn for a bit more craziness and energy. In My Neighbour Totoro, another Ghibli film about the power of nature in which not much happens, this was provided by the magical characters, but there are none here. The most memorable scenes, apart from the vivid beauty of snowing cherry blossom and nature, involve Kaguya’s attempts to break free. In these, the languid water colours give way to vibrant pop art: the background shifts from Beatrix Potter to Ralph Steadman.