Fantastic Fest 2014: The Tale of Princess Kaguya

From the bamboo grove to the moon

Coming of age stories are all over Fantastic Fest this year but only this breathtakingly lovely offering from Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro) is fit for both hardcore anime fans and family viewing.

But that’s the norm for Ghibli’s co-founder and animation godhead Hayao Miyazaki. If anything, this film, based on an ancient Japanese legend, is gentler and more subdued than the frenetic delights of Academy Award-winning Spirited Away and last year’s controversialThe Wind Rises. That may have something to do with the fact that the now-retired Miyazaki isn’t the one directing here. Instead, Studio Ghibli’s other co-founder, Isao Takahata, has the helm, and the result is a whimsical tale shot through with elements of girl power, Japanese patriarchy versus the (female) individual, and parenting gone wild. It’s also by far the finest example of traditional animation you’re likely to see this year.

Aki Asakura voices the titular princess, who is discovered one day hiding in a magical — or holy, maybe — bamboo shoot by a lowly woodcutter. Naturally the old man sees the tiny nymph as a blessing from heaven and promptly, carefully, carries her out of the woods and back home in his cupped hands. His wife is as astonished as he is, but when she takes the tiny thing into her arms, the princess suddenly transforms into a real, live baby. The hardworking oldsters then proceed to raise the infant as their own, with the woodcutter always bearing in mind that the little thing was born to be a woman of great nobility — any nobility will do, apparently — one day. With an assist from the magical bamboo grove, the woodcutter discovers yet another miracle: a river of gold sap flows out of a matured bamboo tree when he swings his ax. Presto, this heroic (sort of) trio are off to the city, and before long the princess is pining for the peasant boy she used to frolic with and dreading the day she will be married off to the highest bidding, noble born scalawag. It’s enough to make a girl cry.

The story is ancient and the animation is, too, beautifully and evocatively so. Takahata and Ghibli’s animation wizards conjure up an entire world seemingly torn from a children’s hand-painted picture book. The artwork is muted and pastoral, all soothing brushstrokes and long-ago imagery. Virtually every frame could be snipped out of the film, enlarged, and hung on a wall. It’s that gorgeous.

Only in one decidedly awesome sequence does Takahata resort to the kind of wild, hellbent, speed-lined animation style of more contemporary anime. Appropriately, it’s as the princess escapes from her palace and flees headlong across the screen, running at full speed, as she attempts to outrun her future and escape into the relative normalcy of her old bamboo grove. For the most part, however, the Ghibli team are content to let their more painterly ways set the tone. It’s nothing like what you might be expecting from the studio that gave us Kiki’s Delivery Service, and because of that the The Tale of Princess Kaguya is even more resplendent and affecting than ninety-nine percent of any other animation out there right now.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya screens again Monday, Sept. 22, 11am.

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