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.

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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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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