Blindspot 2016 #3: The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
There were always two. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Two masters with wildly different approaches to their art. Together they created one of the greatest empires of artistic expression in movie history, but it’s been Miyazaki who has garnered much more attention. It’s not for lack of merit; by my estimation Miyazaki has made several classics without a single bad film to his name. His films have numerous entry points to viewers of any age. His stories tend to have the sweep of fairy tales and epics; they are compulsively watchable and easily accessible without any dilution of his vision. His films are international box office hits that have garnered him roomfuls of awards.
Takahata? He’s more of an enigma. The same year Miyazaki debuted My Neighbor Totoro, perhaps his first film to achieve significant global recognition, Takahata gave us Grave of the Fireflies. The films could not be much more different, save for being about young siblings. Totoro is a delightful family fantasy that occasionally dips into moments of sadness that anyone can relate to. Grave of the Fireflies is a harrowing, headlong plunge into the despair of war. It flaunts the conventional wisdom that animated films shouldn’t tell realistic stories. Takahata still imbued the film with a touch all his own. His sense of pacing is impeccable; he gives the story room to breathe around the tragedy. We cry out of empathy, but we don’t feel pummeled with nihilism, as can happen with films this bleak. He was absolutely the right director for this story; he just happens to be an animator.
As Miyazaki continued to make inventive fantasies, Takahata seemed to do… whatever he wanted to do, without much rhyme or reason. His next film was perhaps his best: the plaintive, bittersweet Only Yesterday, about a woman in her late 20s who reminisces about her childhood as she casts an uncertain eye toward the future. His follow up films, Pom Poko and My Neighbors the Yamadas were zanier, more comedic fare; I haven’t seen them yet, but from what I know about them they are a massive departure from Grave of the Fireflies. His style is famously deliberate; he finishes films when he wants to, at his pace. In the essential documentary Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Miyazaki- a relentlessly hard worker0- openly complains about Takahata’s slow pace of filmmaking. Again, these two men seem to differ in every aspect of their approach.
Here, then, is something of a surprise: after all these years, Takahata has made a fairy tale. And what a tale it is. The Tale of Princess Kaguya has some of the hallmarks of Takahata’s other films. The constant tone of bittersweetness. A theme of a central character trying and failing to find a place that can be her home. But there is a deep feeling of ancientness to this tale, a sense that Takahata is lovingly rendering a tale that has been passed along for centuries. Indeed, the story the film is based on originated in the 10th century. The Tale of Princess Kaguya doesn’t simply feel timeless; it feels suspended in time.
The film opens with a bamboo cutter finding a tiny girl inside a bamboo stalk. The girl turns into regular-sized human baby, and he and his wife decide to raise her. The girl grows quickly, and the man wonders if his adopted daughter is fated to live a greater life than he can provide cutting bamboo. When the same bamboo stalk that birthed her spills gold and fancy robes, he takes that as a sign from heaven. He moves the family into the city; with his new riches he tries to have his daughter embrace nobility and find a rich husband. She takes on the name Princess Kaguya.
Studio Ghibli’s trademark has long been an astonishing attention to detail, no matter who is directing. At first, The Tale of Princess Kaguya looks like a departure from that trend. The edges of the screen are often unfilled; at times there is more negative space on the frame than ink. It’s jarring at first, but it’s also in keeping with the concept of ma, so essential in Japanese art. Miyazaki once described ma as the moment in between two hand claps. Yasujiro Ozu, perhaps the greatest Japanese filmmaker, regularly included silent shots- a tree, or clothes hanging from a line- in between scenes (Roger Ebert loved to call these “pillow shots”). Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday are both quite spacious in their narratives, taking the time to look at the world around the characters before moving on with the story. Fairy tales like Princess Kaguya don’t usually have the luxury of that sort of patient storytelling. Almost every scene in Princess Kaguya advances the narrative to some degree. It’s a surprisingly rich tale, and its 2 hour and 18 minute runtime flows by unnoticed.
My point; the negative space of the film’s opening is Takahata’s hook for the audience. Once we grow used to it, he can manipulate space to fit his narrative needs throughout the film. There is an incredible scene about halfway through the movie where Kaguya, overhearing a conversation where a group of men crassly demand to see her, grows overwhelmed and bolts from her new palace home. In the palace, every corner of the screen is filled and detailed the way we expect from a Ghibli and Takahata movie. And it’s suffocating. Kaguya sheds her robes and explodes down the road outside,and the world opens up again. By the time she reaches the woods, the art style becomes sketchy, aggressively spare, and the effect is liberating. Back in her visual element, Kaguya can be free, if only for a moment.
This is not the sort of film where further explanation of the plot would do anyone any good. It’d be like trying to tell a campfire scare story at breakfast before anyone has had any coffee. The visuals here aren’t simply style for its own sake; they are an essential aspect of taking in this story. And, well, they are gorgeous in their own right. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a fitting cap to Takahata’s enigmatic career. For his last film he reached back in history and folklore and found a story he could tell better than anyone had before. Yes, it’s been told for centuries. But it was always meant to be told like this.