The Tale of Princess Kaguya was robbed. It was robbed by a team of colorful superheroes taking on a he’s-not-really-so-bad villain. It was robbed by a big fluffy robot that said “hairrryyyyy baby!” to the delight of children everywhere. It was robbed by an academy who prefered the cutesy mass-marketability of Big Hero 6 to the sublime artistry of Princess Kaguya. We already gave one Best Animated Feature Oscar to Studio Ghibli with Spirited Away in 2003. Apparently two was one too many to ask.
That’s because The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the type of movie that everyone in the film industry says they want made before failing to turn up to the theater. Director Isao Takahata’s movie retains Ghibli’s trademark meticulous attention to detail that’s wowed critics and animators from all over the world ever since the chimerical and inspirational Castle in the Sky. However, it does so in a style that can only be described as calligraphic. Lines flow across the screen as if refusing to be held down by the meager physical barriers of paper. Brushstrokes are loose and flowing, throwing even still and quiet scenes (of which they are many) into a sort of subtle yet perpetual motion. All the while, a watercolor palette stays muted and calm. It never attempts to match the level of energy, color, or depth of the “classic” Ghibli style, but its unique aesthetics are just as beautiful, and far more expressive. It’s as artsy and off-the-beat as you can get, riddled with visual touches that people might think they’ll find annoying and pretentious, but that they’d stop noticing within minutes if they sat down to watch the film.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya follows the titular “Princess” (her name, not a title), a country farm girl borne of a bamboo stalk. Her father, an old bamboo cutter, chops her free of a glowing stem and raises her, along with his wife, as their own. She grows so quickly that she earns the nickname “Li’l Bamboo” from her peers. She lives happily in the countryside, singing songs, frolicking with friends, and, most importantly, soaking in and appreciating the beauty around her. Then the inevitable: her father, acting on messages from heaven, moves her to the big capital city using a stash of gold bestowed upon him by another glowing bamboo stem. There she is treated like her royal namesake, and given the additional name “Kaguya” (meaning “radiant moon”) by an aged noble awestruck by her beauty.
You can guess what comes next. The country girl stuck in the big city slowly descends into misery as she quickly grows up. The social formalities and constant flow of suitors exacerbate her depression almost as much of her ignorant, greedy father. She does not want to belong to anyone, but cannot escape the possession of the gilded cage that surrounds her.
There is no “plot” so to speak. Rather, The Tale of Princess Kaguya draws out as a series of linear events taking place over multiple years. Pacing is effective but slow, best exemplified by the fact that there is no or very little conflict at all until more than half an hour into the movie. This fairy tale has its lighthearted moments, but is altogether too downtrodden, stylized, and sluggish to appeal to a young audience.
This is an animated movie made for adults. That’s not to say it’s inappropriate (Common Sense Media gives it a 9+); it’s just that only adults will be able to fully appreciate the growing-up narrative, the flow of the aesthetics, and the bittersweet nuances of the film’s final fifteen minutes. In the end, Takahata’s eight years of work have paid off. This is by far his best movie ever.