This past August the renowned Japanese animation outfit Studio Ghibli announced that it would halt production temporarily to ponder its creative and financial future following the retirement of director and founding member Hayao Miyazaki. For years Miyazaki has been the international face of Ghibli, with such critical and commercial hits as Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and The Wind Rises (2013). But Isao Takahata, who partnered with Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki to create the studio back in 1985, is no slouch either: his filmography ranges from the tragic masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies (1988), about two orphans struggling to survive the horror and privation of postwar Japan, to the wacky, Simpsons-esque My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999). Takahata is now 79—six years older than Miyazaki—but his latest feature, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, shows him at the very top of his game.
The movie is adapted from “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” a folktale whose tenth-century origins make it the oldest surviving narrative in Japanese culture. Trudging through the forest one day, an aging and childless bamboo cutter slices through a bamboo stalk and finds a tiny baby nestled inside. She’s so small that he can hold her in the palm of his hand, but after he brings her home to his wife, who embraces the child as her own, the little girl begins to grow rapidly, and within a few weeks she has become a young woman, running around with a gang of mischievous kids and falling in love with a handsome young farmhand. Her father, however, is convinced that she must be of noble blood, and to her sorrow, her parents drag her off to the capital city to be groomed for a cloistered, comfortable life and shopped around as a bride to an assortment of wealthy princess.
Takahata started out with a visual style indistinguishable from Miyazaki’s, but My Neighbors the Yamadas (which, incidentally, included a gag sequence of a baby being found inside a bamboo stalk) showed him working in a looser, more impressionistic vein, with broad, cartoonish characters and minimal, pastel-shaded backgrounds. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya offers a more elegant, emotionally resonant variation on that aesthetic; the sketchy backgrounds, which tend to melt away before reaching the edge of the frame, are perfectly suited to a story that holds one in the hollow of its hand. There are bold, dramatic images too: when the anguished young princess flees the temple, dashing through the woods toward her home in the countryside, Takahata renders her and the forest in black charcoal, the savage lines conveying her roiling emotions. The venerable animator hasn’t made any statements about his own future in light of the studio reorganization, but one can only hope Ghibli maintains a creative standard as high as his.