The Big Picture

  • Isao Takahata’s overlooked masterpiece,
    The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
    , challenges societal norms and celebrates individual freedom.
  • Takahata’s distinct style in storytelling and animation evokes emotions over its detailed visuals.
  • The film explores themes of identity, the transient nature of life, and the pursuit of happiness, leaving behind a significant legacy.

For many animation fans around the world, Studio Ghibli is synonymous with the name Hayao Miyazaki. From beloved classics like Spirited Away to his latest film, The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki is not only one of the most famous Japanese directors alive today, but he has also won the hearts of Western audiences and earned two Academy Awards, solidifying his position as one of the biggest names in the animation industry. While Miyazaki’s art deserves to be recognized and celebrated, there is another figure under the Ghibli banner who has contributed his own cinematic masterpieces that often get overlooked: director, screenwriter, and producer Isao Takahata.

The two directors met while working on Takahata’s debut film, The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun, which at the time was considered a commercial failure. Yet, their collaboration led to a profound friendship and rivalry, and eventually, they co-founded Studio Ghibli along with producer Toshio Suzuki. Takahata has directed well-known and celebrated Ghibli films, such as Only Yesterday and Grave of the Fireflies. However, despite achieving a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes, his final film and magnum opus, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, is frequently underrated and misunderstood.

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya 2013 Film Poster

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

A bamboo cutter in ancient Japan finds a miniature girl inside a bamboo stalk and believes her to be a divine presence. He and his wife raise her as their own, and as the girl quickly matures into a beautiful young woman, suitors from across the land come seeking her hand. However, her celestial lineage holds secrets that challenge her earthly ties, leading to profound revelations about joy, freedom, and her destiny.

Release Date
November 23, 2013

Isao Takahata

Aki Asakura , Takeo Chii , Nobuko Miyamoto , Kengo Kora , Atsuko Takahata

137 Minutes

Riko Sakaguchi , Isao Takahata

Studio Ghibli , Hakuhodo DY Media Partners , KDDI , Mitsubishi Shoji , Nippon Television Network Corporation , Toho , T2 Studio

What Is Studio Ghibli’s ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’ About?

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is an adaptation of a fictional prose narrative called The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, written presumably at the beginning of the tenth century. It is considered one of the most widely known literary classics in Japan thanks to its inclusion in junior high Japanese textbooks. The story has also been adapted many times in picture books, manga, and anime series under the name of Princess Kaguya. Yet, when Isao Takahata read the story in his childhood, he couldn’t relate to the story at all. Initially intended to teach young people to obey rules and live according to society’s expectations, Takahata shifted the script and approached The Tale of the Princess Kaguya with empathy for the heroine, creating a coming-of-age story about the restriction of women, independence, and environmentalism.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya centers on a magical girl discovered in a shining bamboo stalk by a humble bamboo cutter and his wife. Named Princess by her parents, she grows rapidly, captivating those around her with her ethereal beauty and charm. Believing the gods want her to become a noblewoman, her father attempts to provide her with a lavish lifestyle away from her friends and the fields Kaguya grew up in. As she blossoms into womanhood, suitors from far and wide seek her hand, but she rejects them all, longing for freedom yet yearning for her parents’ happiness and approval. Over time, Kaguya’s longing intensifies, and after being assaulted by the Emperor, who seeks to turn her into his concubine, she is forced to reveal her true identity as a princess of the moon, sent down to Earth after committing a sin.

Ultimately, she must return to the Moon, where she will forget all the sorrow and all the joy she experienced during her time on Earth, and the people she has grown to love. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya delves into themes of identity, societal expectations, and the transient nature of life, portrayed through breathtaking hand-drawn animation and a distinctive style that set the movie apart from anything done by Studio Ghibli before.

Takahata Prioritizes Different Details Than Miyazaki Does

Hayao Miyazaki is renowned for his mastery of detailed animation. Films such as Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle are so vibrant and full of life that viewers can almost feel themselves transported into a fantasy world. Active backdrops, brimming with depth and movement, only enhance this sensation. In contrast, Isao Takahata employs a completely different style yet achieves a similar effect. Movies like Only Yesterday and Pom Poko are minimalistic, leaning into impressionism and shedding all excess to focus solely on the necessary details to carry the story. This method is also present in the watercolor style of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which sometimes resembles a Sumi-e painting.

During an interview with Wired, Takahata mentioned that Frédéric Back‘s The Man Who Planted Trees served as inspiration for his adaptation of Princess Kaguya, stating, “I have long believed that it is better to appeal to the viewers’ memory and imagination.” The director aimed to evoke a feeling as if the audience were seeing someone rapidly sketching what was happening before the person’s eyes. Rather than focusing on the elements or characters, Takahata wanted to capture the emotions presented in order to make us empathize with the heroine.

In what is perhaps the most famous scene from the movie, Princess Kaguya is dressed in fine clothing and forced to sit inside a box for three days as the highborn society celebrates her coming-of-age party. Unseen and unheard, separated from everyone around her like a porcelain doll, Kaguya listens as some nobles mock her father’s attempts to make her pass as a princess when she is, in fact, just a country girl. Overwhelmed with disappointment and frustration, she removes her robes and flees to her home in the mountains. During this scene, the background, the trees, and Kaguya herself become blurred lines and colors, with not a single element being recognizable, yet the desperation and despair of this scene are palpable.

Isao Takahata’s Movie Leaves Behind an Important Message

One of the central themes explored in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is the cyclical nature of life and the transience of existence. Close to the film’s conclusion, when Kaguya informs her parents of her imminent return to the Moon, she reflects on the purpose of her journey to Earth, declaring, “I was born to truly live!”

Isao Takahata’s final film transforms a narrative initially focused on conforming to societal norms and meeting familial expectations into a poignant tale about the pursuit of happiness and living in harmony with nature, making it one of the best Ghibli movies ever produced.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is available to watch on Max in the U.S.

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