I’ve been on a bit of a Studio Ghibli kick lately, which lead me to watching a couple animation classics I should’ve watched a long time ago: Howl’s Moving Castle & Pom Poko. A much more recent blindspot/missed opportunity entertainment from Studio Ghibli was 2014’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya, the only Ghibli film I can think of where I planned to catch it in the theater, but missed out due to poor scheduling. It’s probably for the best that I didn’t watch The Tale of Princess Kaguya in public, though. I spent much of the film’s second hour spontaneously bursting into big, ugly tears. I’m not saying that I’m embarrassed to cry in public; it’s just that my couch is a really comfortable place to weep.
Retelling the Japanese folktale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, The Tale of Princess Kaguya immediately has a different look to it than I’m used to from Studio Ghibli’s more typical, polished style. The film has a storybook illustration look to it, recalling the visual work of the recent Irish animation feature The Secret of Kells. It’s a visual language that never allows you to lose sight of its hand-drawn origins. Its brush strokes & pencil marks always on open display. At first the effect of this choice is more cute than breathtaking, but as the story’s reverence for the beauty of Nature starts to takes shape, the visual choices start too make all too much sense. The pencil & watercolor visual palette works like intensely pretty & delicate nature studies that you’d fine in the sketchbook or a botanist or some other kind of observer of Nature’s beauty.
“The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” begins with said bamboo cutter discovering a Thumbelina-sized princess sprouting from a magical bamboo stalk in the mountainside wilderness where he lives & works. The miniature princess then transforms into a human-sized infant who seemingly grows as quickly as the bamboo. The bamboo cutter & his wife raise this “beautiful little princess” as if she were their own natural child, a “blessing from Heaven.” Nature opens up & beautifies at the princess’s presence and she similarly brightens up when immersed in the natural world. Her adoptive father, however, encouraged by other gifts found in the bamboo like gold & fine silks, believes that she is destined to become a “real”princess & transports her to the capitol for training in royal etiquette. As she struggles against the social constraints that try to transform her from an active force of Nature to a passive object to be possessed & adored, the princess is haunted by a dark cloud of yearning and the mystery & purpose of who/what she is, exactly, comes to a magical, dramatic climax.
There is some really touching character work in The Tale of Princess Kaguya, particularly between the princess & her “mother”, but that’s not what made me cry. The film’s music, especially the repeated motif of a song titled “Distant Time” just destroyed me. It was almost a purely physical reaction. The song’s minor chords were just pulling tears out of me effortlessly like a magnet collecting metal shavings. This tenderly emotional soundtrack combines with the film’s teenage-yearning, reverence for Nature, and excessive style of hand-drawn animation to amount to a singularly beautiful & delicately sad viewing experience. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is not as immersive of a film as I’m used to from Studio Ghibli titles, but it still lands with full emotional impact, especially when its soundtrack takes center stage.