I just watched Isao Takahata's newest Studio Ghibli feature, the company's second movie of 2013 alongside Hayao Miyazaki's "The Wind Rises," "Kaguyahime no monogatari" (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) that just premiered here last Saturday. Now I had really no idea what to expect from this film as with Takahata I can never really figure out what I may be getting, which is very much opposite to Miyazaki's work of which I can typically at least have a rough expectation as to what style of film I might get. But with Takahata, he's done a grim war movie with a critical moral message, an art house piece of a woman's nostalgic return to the countryside, an anarchistic environmental film with woodland spirits, and an animated comic strip that resembles watercoloured storyboards. Now with "Princess Kaguya" he very much continues with the style established in his 1999 movie "My Neighbours the Yamadas" by employing an almost sketch-like drawing style and an emulation of watercolours for not only the style of colouring but general textures as well. Certainly anyone expecting typical Ghibli animation, which has remained fairly standardised ever since the 1980s even in the work of the smaller directors, may feel a little weirded out at first, but once the story gets going it's easy to get adjusted with the stylistic choices.
And boy does the story work! Based on an old Japanese folk story, the movie basically tells of a girl born from a bamboo stalk, and who gets taken in by a kindly middle-aged couple to raise as if their own child. As the girl shows meteoric developments in not only having sudden growth spurts, but also developing skills incredibly fast, the father's further bamboo discoveries of gold and fine silks makes him believe she is pre-ordained to become a princess and works to set her a high class life in the capital in the belief that this is what will make her happy. Of course, it's not hard to guess that exactly the opposite ends up being true, and the heavily ceremonial and ritualistic style of Japanese city life where Kaguya is expected to play the part of a highborn noble - particularly on the insistence of the deluded daddy thinking he's doing the right thing - even if she could really care less, that resides at the heart of the movie's conflict. What comes out of this is a surprisingly heartfelt and at times even very humorous film - two qualities Takahata has a tendency to be a little inconsistent with - while the folk story elements provides a lot of traditional Japanese aesthetics to both story and style. And there's certainly no mistaking it that this is a very Japanese movie that makes no concessions of trying to be Westernised in any way (though the movie is still hugely accessible despite this).
A great cast of characters, from the highly sympathetic Kaguya, her doting parents (whose ideas on parenting tend to be rather opposed to one another), and the varying side characters like the etiquette teacher Lady Sagami, Kaguya's miniscule personal servant who proves to be one of the funniest characters on display, and the group of noble suitors tasked to accomplish impossible feats to win the princess' hand. Only the love interest of sorts Sutemaru (who plays ultimately a rather small part in all of this) is a bit too bland. A few nicely surrealistic dream sequences and an ending that eschews any sense of the usually expected happy ending in more ways than one, gives the film a decidedly sad edge that avoids being sentimental or cheesy. In relation to other Ghibli films, I'd say this ranks very favourably toward the higher end of the spectrum, and certainly is the one I'd prefer over Miyazaki's concurrent film (which I also did like). If anyone is a fan of Ghibli or Japanese cinema (animated or otherwise), then if you have a chance to go and see this movie, do take it. Others may need to consult their tastes, but even so its well worth the 137 minutes of your life. Overall rating: ****½