The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is by all means a pleasant film – and one worth watching at that – but it doesn’t feel like something extraordinary from Isao Takahata, and as a work released through Studio Ghibli, it’s not hard to have expected more. The animation of the film is perhaps its greatest pleasure. Rather than adhering to the trend of increasing realism and complexity in the digital film world, Takahata opts for a style that brings the characters to life through an animated brush strokes in what resembles a fast moving series of Japanese woodblock prints. This gives the film a uniquely Japanese appearance on the whole, and it adds to the message of the work as something particularly targeted at a Japanese institution. Takahata is in a difficult position releasing his first film since 1999, where the 15 year period has seen the company he co-founded – Studio Ghibli – grow in popular and critical acclaim beyond anyone’s imagination at the time. Takahata is in a position where he and his contemporaries have released a handful of masterpieces in an atmosphere where matching them is an increasingly difficult task. The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is a film that doesn’t try to do this, and whether it’s better or worse for having done so comes down to what you want to get out of the film.
Takahata uses his animation form as a masquerade for what eventuates as stark – intentional or unintentional – criticism of the monarchy in Japan. The basic premise of the film sees two parents seeking to raise the daughter – that they “find” at the beginning of the film – as a princess. Within the first few scenes of the film this desire shifts into a multi-faceted Machiavellian quest on the the fathers part to both fundamentally change his families place in the world – from rural farmers to royalty – and to disassociate his family from these roots as aggressively as possible. The father’s blind obsession with this monarchic world and his desperation to egress from the rural sphere is one thing, however, the following presentation of this world by Takahata is where the strongest criticisms are reserved for. The world that Princess Kaguya (coincidently, also the world’s largest cruise vessel) enters is one of hackneyed traditions frequently questioned and mocked by the disconnected princess, whilst Takahata portrays those “teaching” her to be a princess as maniacal, strange, and often, creepy. The immediate contrast between initial happiness of the family in their original setting and during the move into the royal world is less than subtle. Sometimes it feels strange to see a film primarily aimed at children taking such overt jabs at the monarchy system in Japan; viewed through a lens of triviality and as something fairly distant from desirable. It feels like subtlety makes social and political commentary in Ghibli films all the more cutting. Although the The Tale of The Princess Kaguya still serves as an successful indictment, it does it without the delicacy of earlier Ghibli films.
The majority of the film’s uniqueness comes from the animation, and often this feels at the expense of other elements of the work; occasionally descending into repeated anime tropes, and at other times simply failing to generate much interest. There’s something markedly weird that permeates the entirety of Takahata’s film – characters casually breaking their backs and dying with an eerie nonchalance, oddly timed dream sequences that end as abruptly as they start, and scenes that physically collapse – the best moments of the film, whether dramatic or humorous, have a lot to owe to this weirdness; sadly, it’s never employed enough. At the same time, it can also be overdone; it’s a balance Takahata has mastered in the past, but seems to struggle with in The Tale of The Princess Kaguya .
The conclusion of the film is so strangely dissonant to the pacing of the rest of the film that it creates a series of effects. Firstly, it’s difficult at first to comprehend what exactly is happening – after the narrative decides to dance between dream and reality – and before long it’s easy to feel lost. It sails between pastiche and poignancy before falling into a conclusion that can only be described as “very strange”. Takahata tries to mediate between quirkiness and conventionality and it brings The Tale of The Princess Kaguya down. The film is largely accessible bar it’s conclusion, but the final 15 minutes mark a change in mood and pace into something hectic, nonsensical and – bar Takahata’s perpetual adherence to cringe and cliche – very enjoyable. Takahata is better at narrative and convention than he is a master of the surreal, however, it have been fascinating to see if he could have included a greater sense of weirdness in The Tale of The Princess Kaguya; a film that doesn’t have enough. It’s a film comfortable being “good”, but it has no intentions of trying to be excellent to the point of memorability. It’s worth watching, but only once you’ve exhausted Ghibli’s other classics.