Moon child: Li’l Bamboo in Takahata’s folk tale.
Show Hide image

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

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496