The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Director: Isao Takahata (2015)

Magical and moving, this animated folktale is charming, moving and a beautifully crafted joy, bursting with humour and life.

When sent to the Earth as punishment, a young Moon spirit discovers that mortal life involves responsibility and pain as well as love.

Deservedly nominated for best animated feature at the Oscars, it’s a captivating combination of glorious pencil-work and delicate pastel colours.

Working in a secluded grove, an old Bamboo Cutter (James Caan) is startled when a bright light reveals a tiny female form inside a tree. The kindly man takes her home to his wise wife (Mary Steenburgen) where the sprite changes miraculously into a baby.

Being without children they resolve to look after the baby as if she were their own. She grows at a prodigious rate, sprouting from baby to toddler in a single crawl.

The Princess is named ‘Li’l Bamboo’ by the local children and joins the gang of Sutemaru (Darren Criss) with whom a strong emotional bond develops.

Loyal, clever, impetuous and mischievous, Li’l Bamboo accelerates through a joyous, gentle and comic childhood in a wonderful rural adventure land. It’s alive with gorgeously animated birds, frogs, spiders, pigs, snakes, squirrels, beavers, fish and deer.

Returning to the magic grove the Bamboo Cutter finds a tree filled with money, then another with swathes of fine cloth. He concludes Li’l Bamboo is a true princess and must be raised as one.

So he builds his daughter a palace in the Capital and when she turns 13 years old he moves the family there to live, away from her friends.

Stern Lady Sagami (Lucy Liu) is employed to teach Li’l Bamboo courtly social graces but the spirited girl rails against her tutoring and the subduing of her personality. She mocks the painful beauty procedures and rejects the subservient idea of womanhood.

At a three day banquet to mark her coming of age, she is given the name Princess Kaguya and to please her father tries to become an obedient, studious daughter. With her great beauty and social skills she attracts a multitude of suitors, including the greatest nobles in the land.

But the Princess isn’t impressed by their status and to her father’s consternation Kaguya issues them impossible tasks to prove their love.

However she’s aghast when one by one they return to make her keep her word and she makes a rash wish which changes her life.

It is more measured in pace and tone and lacks the delirious colours and engineered wackiness of contemporary megaplex crowd pleasers such as Disney’s excellent Big Hero 6. Plus with a running time of 137 minutes it is for older rather than younger children.

With it’s strong-willed country girl who learns of life in the city it’s similar to the story of Heidi which director Takahata adapted in 1974. It is a tale celebrating life but also reflective of grief, loss and suffering, heralding the virtues of honesty and friendship over wealth and looks, taking to task the way female identity is constructed for the benefit of men.

The animation is impressionistic in style with characters and backgrounds being drawn on the same page – unlike in traditional cel animation where characters are drawn separately and superimposed onto the background. It is a wonderfully immersive and suitably organic technique, emphasising the passion for the story in every exquisite and entertaining frame.

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