Director: Isao Takahata. Japan 2013. 137 mins.
Princess Kaguya is one of the most famous heroines in Japanese folklore. She is also one of the oldest. Her story, usually titled The Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter, was in circulation well before the completion of Japan’s first novel, the tenth-century The Tale Of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. For example, in one scene of Shikibu’s story about Prince Genji’s romantic life at court there is an episode in which the nobles discuss a scroll that depicts The Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter. This places Princess Kaguya’s story, in some estimates, as far back as the eighth century.
Princess Kaguya’s story is so named because the princess’s foster father is an old bamboo cutter who finds his daughter as a tiny baby, only three inches high, nestling in a shining shoot of bamboo. The tale is reminiscent of Tom Thumb; or, in Japan, of other magical babes like Momotarō, the boy who is discovered inside a large peach by his human foster parents. Princess Kaguya’s tale has been continually retold, and can be seen to be variously about human greed, filial piety or the treatment of women in Japan. In her refusal to marry, Princess Kaguya has also been read as a feminist heroine, not least by the creator of the anime version of her tale: Studio Ghibli director Isao Takahata.
Takahata has said that Princess Kaguya’s tale is known as “the ancestor of all romances” and that “Princess Kaguya can be said to be the origin of SF fantasy in Japan”. Takahata’s version of The Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter is not the first in Japanese film and television history. The most famous version is probably Kon Ichikawa’s live action film adaptation from 1987, which starred Yasuko Sawaguchi as Kaguya, and also Toshiro Mifune, who was already world famous as the star of many of Akira Kurosawa’s films. Princess Kaguya’s tale has also been loosely adapted into a wide range of anime texts, most notably providing a touchstone for Sailor Moon.
For Takahata, however, it was Tomu Uchida’s unproduced manga eiga (an animated ‘manga film’) at the famous Toei Animation studio in the 1950s that opened the young filmmaker’s eyes to the potential of the tale. Takahata, like other young recruits, was given the opportunity to develop a plan for an animated version of Princess Kaguya and, although he never put his own forward for production, Princess Kaguya stayed with him in the intervening years. His story, unlike the others, centres on why Princess Kaguya chooses to come to Earth from the moon, on why she chooses to experience mortal life.
Taking an epic eight years to make, Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a tour de force in anime production. He set up a new studio within Studio Ghibli in order to produce a film that eschews the look of anime. Takahata has said he was inspired by Canadian animator Frédéric Back, which might explain the strikingly pastel look of Princess Kaguya. The film’s flowing lines, watercolour-inspired palette, open white spaces and lack of distinction between foreground and background imagery all challenge the ‘rules’ of normal anime aesthetics, making this an aesthetic reinterpretation and not just a modernisation of one of Japan’s oldest folklore tales.
The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya screens as part of The Enchanted Screen: A Season of Folk and Fairytale Films and Vintage Sundays on Sunday 26 November.
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