The Tale of Princess Kaguya – Review

Samuel Alexander

I have a lot to thank Studio Ghibli for – my roots as an animation enthusiast and my journey as a student of the medium are tied to the studio.

It all started with Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. After seeing the film, I developed a hunger for Japanese storytelling.

It wasn’t long before I branched out into Ghibli’s other films, eventually landing on Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday. That was when I realised Ghibli isn’t all about fantastical creatures and magic, but sometimes deep and engaging human dramas that push the boundaries of animation.

Thus, Takahata’s films became my justification in discussions of Japanese animation. They became proof that animation isn’t just a genre; it is a medium that doesn’t require justification but demands admiration for its beauty. With animation from Japan constantly labelled with just ‘anime’ as the genre, this was so refreshing to me.

Now, Ghibli is at it again with a taste of Japanese mythology brought to the big screen – a rare treat for our Western audience. Takahata brings us The Tale of Princess Kaguya, based on the Japanese folk tale, ‘The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter’.

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The magic is there, but it’s much more subtle than Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke or Howl’s Moving Castle. Instead the focus is on the titular princess, her life and her hardships.

However, the real magic here comes in the presentation. The Tale of Princess Kaguya may very well be one of the most visually spectacular and endearing films of our generation. There’s no intricate detail, instead the beauty lies in the simplicity: the film has the look of an abstract watercolour with a free-handed, sketchy look.

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The inconsistency in the level of detail turns the film into a series of paintings, with each scene having its own mood and feeling. Sometimes we are presented with a detailed vision of Kagayu, her face moving fluidly with detail – we are given a taste of her beauty without being spoiled by it.

Then there are moments where everything breaks down into pure emotion and colourful chaos. One scene sees Kaguya fleeing through the woods and fields, flooded with sadness and anger. We see the lines and boundaries of the character and backdrops break down into shapes and blurs that convey the princess’ emotions so beautifully and accurately.

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It’s a necessary inconsistency – with a run-time of over two hours, this tale could’ve easily outstayed its welcome. And yet, with so much variation in beauty accompanying the wonderfully crafted story, I found time flying by.

In the end I felt like I had been taken on a meaningful journey: I smiled, I frowned, I laughed and I cried. My emotions were bombarded but not exhausted.

Joe Hisaishi returns, providing an enchanting score that evokes ancient Japan and taking us on that final step of true immersion. Used sparingly, Hisashi’s score brings each moment to life, from the changing of the seasons to the sudden and heartbreaking maturing of Kaguya.

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From the buzzing of insects to rustling of leaves, the film never falls into a boring silence. Yet when there is silence it is precise and with intention. Every aspect of the sound design is perfect, with emphasis and subtlety in all the right places.

However, with the end of the tale comes the end of an era, with Princess Kaguya likely to be Takahata’s last film. And so, Takahata joins Miyazaki in ending on a high note.

It’s with a heavy heart I accept that two of the most inspirational filmmakers of my time have each said their goodbyes to feature film making. But they haven’t left us empty handed, having left behind a legacy of masterpiece.

With them we have laughed, we have cried and we have taken something truly wonderful from each journey. For that I have this to say: thanks for the memories!

This final film is a masterpiece that needs to be seen to be believed. No, it DESERVES to be seen.

Whether you’re a long-term Ghibli addict, an animation enthusiast looking to broaden your horizons or just looking to try something different, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a must-see.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is currently screening in selected cinemas across the UK.