Moon child: Li’l Bamboo in Takahata’s folk tale.
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Small wonders: the simple pleasures of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Japanese animation ­company Studio Ghibli favours contemplation over manufactured climaxes, and this film is no different.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (U)
dir: Isao Takahata

In the rush to praise one of the two directors at the heart of the Japanese animation ­company Studio Ghibli, it is usually the case that the other gets overlooked. Hayao Miyazaki was responsible for the studio’s international breakthrough in 2001 with Spirited Away, a fantasy so indelibly cuckoo that it makes Alice in Wonderland look like Cathy Come Home.

His fellow Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata is every bit as talented and considerably more eclectic. His masterpiece, Grave of the Fireflies (1988), is an account, all the more harrowing for being so plainly told, of two young children struggling to survive in Japan at the end of the Second World War. Another of his triumphs is Pom Poko (1994), an ecological fable in which raccoons try to halt the destruction of the countryside. Though steeped in the concern for nature that is prevalent in much of Studio Ghibli’s output, this is no place for tree-huggers: the raccoons resort in their campaign to shape-shifting, terrorism and the inflation of their scrotums to parachute size.

Miyazaki, who is 74, has announced his retirement but Takahata is still going strong at 79 – or rather, strong-ish. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya begins with a bamboo cutter discovering inside a new shoot a baby small enough to nestle in his palm. He takes her home, where she grows to the size of a six-month-old infant before his eyes. His wife, finding that she can lactate unexpectedly, plops out a breast. But where has the girl come from? And how do you shop for a kid who can jump several dress sizes between breakfast and bedtime?

That last problem is taken care of when the bamboo plant coughs up a stream of multicoloured silks, like handkerchiefs plucked from a magician’s sleeve. It is typical of Studio Ghibli, with its emphasis on simple pleasures, that one of the most rapturous scenes should involve the girl, nicknamed Li’l Bamboo, rolling around in these ethereal fabrics. It is no surprise, either, that Takahata is most at ease focusing on her rural upbringing, even if the ambient noises are at odds with the static painted landscapes in which leaves never tremble in the breeze and clouds hang still in the sky.

The faint watercolour style of Takahata’s 1999 comedy My Neighbours the Yamadas is reprised here. Jades, beiges and ­powder blues convene over an eggshell wash. The effect is one of soothing vagueness disrupted only slightly when the girl is moved to the city, where scarlet kimonos are glimpsed, for etiquette classes under the fearsome Lady Sagami with her stricken kabuki face. This aesthetic change coincides with a maturing in Li’l Bamboo, now named Kaguya and inundated with marriage proposals. She responds by requesting from her suitors implausible treasures. All well and good, until these determined young men start producing them.

No one goes to Studio Ghibli for incident. This is a film-making model that favours contemplation over manufactured climaxes. (Right in the middle of the 1989 film Kiki’s Delivery Service, for example, the title character, a teenage witch, takes a woodland sabbatical while she waits for her mojo to return.) Kaguya grows weary of the city and of the conformity expected of a woman and returns to the countryside. But all she does is sit staring at the moon. That is where she came from. The day is fast approaching when she will have to return.

It would be misleading to claim that there is an exploration of the tensions between civilisation and nature or the corporeal and the celestial. Even over a running time in excess of two hours, these matters are no more than hinted at. Small wonder if the viewer clings to the one or two outright kinetic sequences here. Kaguya’s fantasy, in which she imagines bursting through the walls at her coming-of-age ceremony, is especially thrilling, with the drawing style disintegrating into granular charcoal lines. It is also debatable how radical a departure from the mainstream the picture is. “The waterwheels go round,” runs one of its songs. “Lifetimes come and go in turn.” Despite the benefit of it not being sung by Elton John, it is easy for us to feel we’re back with The Lion King and its circle of life.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State