In the opening act of The Tale Of Princess Kaguya, a pivotal scene. The toddler Kaguya, having just taken her first steps is cheered on by a group of older country children who have christened her ‘Lil’ Bamboo’, on account of her ability to grow in terrifyingly rapid spurts. Her father, the man who found her in the woods, calls her ‘Princess’ and is hellbent on making her one. She is figuratively and literally trapped between those two names and two opposing destinies.
Both call to Kaguya by their respective names: ‘Lil Bamboo’! ‘Princess’! At first she stands between the two, confused. Then slowly she turns, stumbling step by step towards her father as his lungs burst. They embrace as he collapses into tears and sheer relief.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya, like many Studio Ghibli films, is a story about the opposing pulls of nature and grubby civilisation – but it’s also a movie about saying goodbye.
Most likely, The Tale Of Princess Kaguya will be the final film by the internationally renowned Studio Ghibli. Almost certainly it will be Isao Takahata’s film, the director and lesser known founder of Studio Ghibli, perhaps most famous for creating one of the most brutally truthful war movies ever made in Grave of the Fireflies: a film so overwhelmingly bleak it had to be paired with My Neighbour Totoro as an antidote.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a 10th century folktale thought to be the first actual recorded Japanese narrative. It seems fitting. The last story Studio Ghibli will ever tell is the first Japanese story ever told. It is the definition of a full circle and it’s beautiful for that.
But above all else, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is beautiful. It also means to question exactly what that beauty is worth.
Its aesthetic — a minimalistic, flowing hand-drawn style — is quietly innovative, deliberately soft and evocative. It’s strange and disorientating at first, but also charming in the best possible sense. It’s difficult to imagine the tale being told in any other way, through any other medium.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the story of a mysterious princess, found in the woods by a bamboo cutter, raised in the Japanese countryside. After finding Kaguya as a forest spirit surrounded by light, her father later stumbles across a fortune in gold in the bamboo forest. He sees it as divine intervention, as a sign that he must take Kaguya to the capital and raise her as a princess.
What follows is a delicately positioned allegory on materialism, the trivial nature of beauty and the challenges of parenthood: the importance of separating your own wishes and goals from your child’s own hopes and dreams. It treads these well-worn threads deftly and – at times – with dazzling originality and genius. Truly The Tale of Princess Kaguya was a movie that forces one to ruminate on things and/or stuff. It’s a movie that questions notions of femininity and, in that sense, feels truly feminist.
A handful of scenes stand out. A dream sequence in which Kaguya explodes in a fit of righteous fury, blasting through the walls of the prison her father and society built around her. A scene that flurries in hard drawn edges as Kaguya destroys barrier after barrier, hurtling at tremendous speeds toward the woods where she was raised, only to discover that both the place where she grew up and she herself were irrevocably changed. She can never truly return.
Another: a scene in which a rich, potential suitor, who has never seen Kaguya’s face, ruminates on her beauty, suggesting they run away to the forest, back to the natural environment Kaguya longs for. Kaguya’s struggle is palpable – it is the dream she longs for, but Kaguya is haunted by the futility of this man’s promise, whose sole reasons for proposing are the rumours of Kaguya’s beauty. She quietly sobs in the corner before switching places with an old shrivelled woman to test the suitor, who leaves instantly.
Then finally: a breathtaking sequence. In her final moments on earth Kaguya returns to the boy she loved as a teenager. Now a struggling country thief with a wife and child. “I could have been happy with you,” he tells him, and it’s heartbreaking. Using her unearthly powers they fly over the countryside, forgetting the reality of their situation for a short glorious moment. For a second it feels as though the tremendous obstacles of those missing years can be overcome. Then Kaguya evaporates into thin air. The man awakes in the field where they met, convinced it was all just a strange dream.
The Tale of Prince Kaguya itself feels like a strange dream.
And it ends with a farewell I won’t spoil, but suffice to say that The Tale of Princess Kaguya – it’s a film about many things – but it’s ultimately a film about the pain of leaving things behind. It’s about that pain of separation. It’s about loss.
It’s most likely the last Studio Ghibli movie you’ll ever watch. A movie about saying goodbye.
You can find out more about Australian showings of The Tale Of Princess Kaguya here.