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The stunning, celebratory Tale of Princess Kaguya is another Ghibli masterpiece

The release of Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya is bittersweet, which is fitting. The film premiered in Australia amid rumours that Studio Ghibli, the animation house Takahata co-founded with Hayao Miyazaki, was closing its doors – these rumours proved to be only partially true, and the studio remains open despite a halt in production for the foreseeable future. Takahata’s first feature film in 15 years follows Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises; the two releases complement each other as swan songs for both the beloved filmmakers and the studio they established (with Toshio Suzuki and Yasuyoshi Tokuma). But while Miyazaki’s introspective The Wind Rises was a contemplation of the creative process, Takahata’s Princess Kaguya is a celebration, albeit a somber one.

Adapted from the Japanese folk story “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, The Tale of Princess Kaguya wears its folklore origins on its sleeve; the animation is heavily stylized, taking the form of a Japanese ink wash painting with breathtaking results. Having flirted with a similar experimental style in 1991’s Only Yesterday before fully realising it in 1999’s My Neighbors the Yamadas, Takahata’s veteran approach is stunning and assured. Wide shots are paintings, barely filling the frame; close ups of native flora and fauna linger, embellishing their simplistic yet detailed beauty. The stylization folds into the storytelling sparingly and to great effect – certain sequences, in which colour drains and brushstrokes become thicker as emotions are heightened, are some of the best in animation history.

The story itself provides more than enough substance to go with the style. When the elderly bamboo cutter Okina discovers a magical princess inside a glowing bamboo shoot in a nearby grove, he and his wife Ona decide to raise the child themselves. The princess grows at a rapid rate, seemingly in time with her emotional development. After some time, the bamboo cutter finds enough gold in the same bamboo shoots to leave the village and purchase his own castle, one he believes to be fitting of his new royal family. Word soon travels about the princess, and as she swiftly develops into womanhood a series of potential suitors begin to fight for her affections. A lot of ground is covered, from issues of destiny and expectation through to femininity in a patriarchal society; it is both touching and meaningful, at times some of the funniest and most emotionally devastating work the studio has produced.

Much of Studio Ghibli’s current state of affairs is the result of the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki. The studio has produced notable works without Miyazaki (Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies being chief among them), but the future of the studio without its figurehead or his box-office draw has always been unclear. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a testament to what the studio can be without Miyazaki – if this is “minor” Ghibli, Takahata is not aware of it. The Wind Rises was a farewell; The Tale of Princess Kaguya proves there’s life here yet.

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