Isao Takahata’s swansong is based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, believed to be the oldest Japanese narrative in existence. The tale of a tiny princess discovered inside a bamboo shoot is ripe for the Ghibli treatment, combining as it does the studio’s passion for fantasy, nature and feminism. Or magic, mushrooms and heroines, if you will.
Though these themes are familiar, the design is a stunning departure. Inspired by traditional woodblock and silkscreen prints, Takahata’s watercolour visuals and muted colours are a world away from the full-bodied look of films like Spirited Away. Expressive line drawings blend beautifully with misty white backdrops, creating a visual richness that’s matched emotionally.
The middle section of the film revolves around Kaguya’s courtship by noble suitors, who invariably see her as treasure to be won and kept. This part feels particularly relevant today, highlighting unwanted male attention which Kaguya deflects using her intellect. The more powerful or upper-class the man, the more he takes rejection as invitation to pursue her further.
This feels more progressive than Disney films or even real life where we’re still expected to find inspiration in the idea that someone might marry a prince, even if it means giving up your career or associating with a bunch of racists. Kaguya rejects every controlling practice thrown at her, and like Princess Mononoke she’s a princess of nature rather than royal blood or marriage.
Princess Kaguya is another Ghibli picture about woodland spirits that’s actually about what it means to be human. It’s a film of flawless elegance and female empowerment, with an ending that seems all the more moving and meaningful since Takahata’s death earlier this year. He’d probably disapprove of the phrase but this really is first-class animation.