Given the retiral of Studio Ghibli’s founding generation of directors, the fan in me impels me to write that Ghibli’s brand of immersive cinematic magic is unique; given their international popularity, I dare say I will not be the only one to mourn their retirement. Many themes and features contribute to Ghibli’s distinctive filmic presence: a hand-crafted aesthetic; a merging of reality and the fantastical; promotion of a strong heroine or a wise child; a love of the pastoral; an awareness of the interconnected nature of lives, human and non-human. However, despite being drawn with a freer, more fluid hand and a different aesthetic to Hayao Miyazaki’s intricate studies, studio co-founder Isao Takahata’s latest film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, still possesses many of Ghibli’s distinctive hallmarks.
Princess Kaguya is based on a Japanese folktale where a bamboo cutter uncovers and adopts a tiny Tumbelina-like girl. In idyllic rural surroundings, the girl grows to human proportions, and takes works and plays alongside other village children. However, convinced of his daughter’s potential, her adoptive father desires for her a very different future. With his newfound wealth, he relocates the family to the city. There, renamed “Princess Kaguya”, she learns – reluctantly – the arts of a genteel femininity, including how to look and act like a lady, how to stand and “swish” gracefully. When she reaches marriageable age, suitable noble matches are sought for but rebuffed by Kaguya as she sets them preposterous tasks to complete in order to win her. Frustrated with men’s projections onto her (and also with the consequences of their actions), Kaguya confesses her origins to her parents: she is not human and, unfortunately, will soon have return to the moon.
Despite the feminist trajectory, the film’s cultural politics aren’t full-blown angry. Kaguya’s suitors are handled with a deft comedic touch; for example, the danger of the Emperor’s attempted entrapment is staged as a genuine bafflement on the monarch’s part because Kaguya exceeds his power to command obedience. Men are gently critiqued for their egoism and their blinkered narcissism (one is reminded of Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle here). Even her childhood friend, Sutemaru, who might have provided Kaguya’s adult love interest, is a married father when he proposes eloping. Yet Kaguya is more resourceful than victimised, and the film’s tone is more melancholic than strident, as if to remind us more of the waste of such lives than of social injustices. The one sequence in the film which might have led to a very different sort of film appears when Kaguya’s anger and frustrations boil over and, shedding her fine clothes, she races back at lightning speed to her beloved forest. Drawn expressionistically in bolder lines and employing a more restricted colour palate of mostly black lines, with grey and blue-green hues, this sequence is a far cry from the delicate translucent watercolour washes that characterise the film’s bucolic pastoral spaces or its whitened, light-infused courtyard interiors. In eschewing a more overtly sexual political agenda, the film is far more inclusive, and is able also to articulate other preoccupations: a natural cycle that encompasses birth and death; change and the pull of the past; an attachment to homespun crafts (weaving, gardening, spinning, cooking, charcoal making), themselves objective correlatives for Ghibli’s brand of animation, and signalling (perhaps) changes for the future.
What is celebrated in The Tale of Princess Kaguya is Kaguya’s exuberant enjoyment of life, her contiguity with animals, plants, creatures, her joyous wildness and also the strongly-felt emotions of children. Yet such feelings and attachments are to be lost when Kaguya returns to her bodhisattva-like origins (incongruently signalled by the calypso-like music announcing the arrival of the celestial beings that come to claim her). In his now classic account of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bethelheim observed that the evidentially “unrealistic nature” of fairy tales is nevertheless important for their access to human psychology and their contributions to the socialisation process. But, what if we invert Bethelheim’s somewhat defensive analytic framework? For what Ghibli’s modern fairy tales remind us of is a capacity for wonder. If that capacity enlarges what we normalise as human, then surely fairy tales, where even a tiny girl may quite literally spring forth from a bamboo shoot, are to be celebrated.