Fable-ous Ghibli: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
By George Meixner.
“I’ve seen it. It will all fall apart”, Hayao Miyazaki muses as the sun sets in the background of the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness which explored the inner-workings of the iconic Japanese animation studio. The documentary followed Miyazaki as he neared the completion of The Wind Rises and Isao Takahata was simultaneously attempting to finish the direction of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
The affectionately shortened ‘Princess Kaguya’ is the latest and purportedly penultimate full-length feature to emerge from Ghibli (When Marnie Was There is yet to receive a release date for the UK). It follows the story of a poor bamboo cutter and his wife living in rural 10th century Japan. Under mysterious circumstances they discover a three-inch high young girl in the glow of a miraculous bamboo shoot and decide it is their destiny to raise her. However, as she begins to mature at an unnatural rate, the bamboo cutter decides the Gods have sent her to them in order that they ensure she becomes a great princess. This requires some uncomfortable changes to their lifestyle and to the girl who had thus far grown up in the mountains as ‘Lil’ Bamboo’.
The story is a surprisingly true retelling of one of Japanese folklore’s oldest recorded tales. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Online) has digitised copies of some the original manuscripts documenting the tale. From the extracts available, it seems Takahata has taken a deeper interest in the early life of the Princess. In the film her formative years show her as a normal girl communing with nature and living happily in the relative poverty of her parents’ rural existence.
The remarkable style of animation is something unique in modern cinema. The emphasis on the hand-drawn stage of the Ghibli production method creates an effect akin to a two hour flipbook; each image meticulously reproduced with small individual changes to create the effect of movement. It is reminiscent of zoetropes; cylindrical boxes with vertical slits as viewfinders, which were some of the earliest forms of producing the illusion of motion with a series of static images. British audiences may well be reminded of the magic of The Snowman with its freehand, old-fashioned design. It isn’t necessary for every element of each frame to be relentlessly crammed to the corners with detail.
The simplicity of the ‘sketched’ effect is a refreshing change to the eye watering saturated colours used in most modern animation and an antidote to high definition, where every freckle is enhanced and open to analysis. At the same time it is the perfect medium for this 10th century fable. Look back at the 17th century Edo recordings of the original manuscripts. They have provided the inspiration for the film’s powerful visual flavour of Japan. You can almost reach out to smudge the charcoal strokes.
The soundtrack is another aspect of the piece that goes hand-in-hand with the aesthetic. The playing of the traditional koto Princess Kaguya is one of her “most beautiful” accomplishments, and indeed the film’s. Panpipes, flutes and reed instruments combine with the sounds of nature to create a truly oriental soundscape.
Ghibli has always championed the purity and innocence of stories about children and young adults from the perspective of the children themselves whilst retelling fairytales and invoking realist atmospheres. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a beautiful vehicle to pursue both of these. ‘Lil’ Bamboo’ (later Princess Kaguya) suffers all the anxieties of a young person struggling to fit into the world and attempting to learn who they are. The story is a fable containing magic, the mundane, the fantastic, monarchy, impossible tasks and dwindling opportunities. It balances the unique realism of Ghibli’s animation with their flare for fantasy and spirits. Ponyo was inspired by the story of The Little Mermaid, Porco Rosso is loosely based around the legend of The Red Baron while Laputa: Castle in the Sky contains significant elements of Jonathan Swift’s satirical parody Gullivers Travels.
Kaguya has parents who only want the best for their child, even at the short-term cost of that child’s happiness. This is a window into Japanese culture that the magic of Ghibli affords a Western audience. The overbearing pressure exerted by parents for children to succeed is increasingly a part of Japanese culture.
In Whisper of the Heart, Shizuku is a passionate reader at odds with her post graduate student mother and librarian father, regarding her commitment to her exams. Similarly, in From up on Poppy Hill, Umi runs an entire household while her mother studies abroad and her father is lost at sea. Umi’s troubles exist in the negative. She is forced to seek a link to her past and identity by attempting to communicate with her lost father by hoisting flags to be seen in the Yokohama shipping lanes. Through her friend Shun she learns about herself and her origins. This is a forerunner for Kaguya’s journey to maturity as she struggles with her true parentage and only gradually begins to understand her past.
Was Miyazaki correct in forewarning Studio Ghibli’s downfall as The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness suggests in the title? Can Studio Ghibli conjure up a happy ending, or better yet, no ending at all from out of its magician’s hat? Unfortunately, it is probably more of an argument about the financial reality of their situation than a question of their continued greatness. Ghibli has never shied from realism; they were pioneers in depicting Japanese issues inside their animations. How will they draw the line between sustainability and their own fairytale?
The creative flare is still alive and well in the two most senior orchestrators of the production house’s success. Miyazaki and Takahata have directed two remarkable and challenging films in The Wind Rises and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya As they get older they clearly do not relish the commercial aspect to their artistry and it is difficult to see who is placed to take on their mantle. And how do they compete with Hollywood billion dollar franchises when their relatively small projects are so labour intensive?
Let us hope beauty tames the beast.
The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya is in UK cinemas Friday 20th March.