In November 2013, after fourteen years between films and at age 78, the brilliant animated feature film director Isao Takahata released Kaguya-hime no Monogatari in his native Japan. Under the title The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the film is currently enjoying a critically celebrated American release. And deservedly so: it is one of the most arresting animated films ever made.
The basic story is familiar to all Japanese, as its source is The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a 10th century folktale (some say late-9th) and the earliest known piece of Japanese literature. In the original, a miraculous child, Princess Kaguya, is sent from Heaven to be raised by a humble, old bamboo cutter and his humble, old wife. It is a rather straightforward morality tale. The beautiful princess’s greatest happiness comes from loyalty to her elderly, earthly parents—she artfully eschews many a well-concocted marital advance until her mother and father pass away. Princess Kaguya’s father tells her from his deathbed, “Thank you, my daughter, for all the happiness that you have brought us.” And, after his death, rather than fly into the arms of her waiting beloved, the princess stoically returns to the moon, wherefrom she descended many years before. “I am ready.” It is the type of story indigenous to the Japanese mind and spirit. Takahata retains the story’s 10th century setting, but then angles it to reflect some of the more difficult parts of late-20th and early-21st century Japanese life.
Blessed are the Poor
Since his directorial debut in the early 1960s, Takahata has distinguished himself as a powerful dramatist and a visual adventurer who enjoys thematic sleight of hand. It’s not a Hollywood “twist” that he works; rather, it is the careful, Yasujirō Ozu-like revelation of the sub-themes as a film’s innermost drama. His celebrated Grave of the Fireflies (1988), the story of a Japanese boy and his little sister orphaned during World War II, for example, seems at first to be about the brutality of the American firebombing of Japan—which the film depicts unflinchingly. But its overarching drama centers on a boy’s ego and lack of perseverance. The boy pridefully refuses to accept the help of a grouchy, begrudging, mean-spirited aunt. Instead he chooses to fend for himself and strikes out on an ‘adventure,’ little sister in tow. The sister starves to death on the outskirts of town; he dies alone in a railway station. Most viewers judge the aunt for her hardheartedness; Takahata judges the boy’s hardheadedness.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is similarly structured. It remains, at heart, a story about family loyalty, and at first appears to be a rather typical tale of a young fairy princess growing, albeit awkwardly, into her exalted life. Takahata, however, announces his real theme when, after discovering the miraculous child in a bamboo grove, the bamboo cutter pronounces to his wife, “It’s me Heaven’s blessed.”
Takahata deftly draws the audience’s attention away from lingering over this moment, all the while unfolding its significance. Eventually, the bamboo cutter leads Princess Kaguya to the capital city. Using gold that Heaven sent to her, the bamboo cutter contracts a madam to give her a contorting education in aristocratic manners. The princess’s face is caked in white makeup, her eyebrows removed, her teeth blackened, all in preparation for marriage to a feudal lord. For this is the “happiness” of a princess, he declares. The bamboo cutter’s shaping and marketing of his daughter nearly lands him a seat at the emperor’s palace, where she is desired as a concubine. Her beauty is his ticket up the social ladder.
I’ve sketched the bamboo cutter a little starkly; he’s not a true film villain. He may be greedy, but his real menace is a lack of self-knowledge. He cannot see that the princess is suffering at his hand. When he realizes his failure at the end of the film, he repents—too late, however, for her happiness. But here is the key point for Takahata: Princess Kaguya was sent from heaven to the very place she was always meant to be, born into the very life she was always meant to have. And this is what no one expects, the bamboo cutter most especially. When he proclaimed, “It’s me Heaven’s blessed,” his mind raced with all the ways that Heaven lifted him from his life as a “hillbilly.” He doesn’t realize that the princess had too been blessed, been blessed to be his daughter, to live as a part of a humble family, very far from the trappings of wealth and power. They were meant to live a rural life, or as she sings throughout the film, among the “birds, bugs, beasts, grass, trees, flowers.” Instead, she has been deprived of her birthright and forced to live as a fake, fake, fake, as she mourns towards the film’s climax. But, because the bamboo cutter subconsciously hated his own life, he could not conceive of it as blessed, and thus drove his daughter to misfortune. This is Takahata’s emerging sub-theme.
Critiquing the Miracle
It’s telling that what Takahata judges most severely in his film are the parts unique to his 21st century adaptation. These new elements—the bamboo cutter’s renunciation of his peasantry, his relocation to the capital city, and Kaguya’s education as a key to social elevation—have some populist angst to them. But they also evoke a bundle of tightly bound cultural images associated with the much-heralded “Japanese Miracle,” the rapid industrialization and modernization of post-war Japan and the incredible economic boom it generated. Takahata appears to be criticizing the very heart of modern Japanese culture: the rapid refashioning of the Japanese from a rural people to an urban workforce and the re-built post-war education system designed to fit them to their new economic roles.
Despite its tenth-century setting, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a film made with eyes firmly fixed on the troubles of contemporary Japanese life. It is suffused with anxiety over the hollowing of modern Japan—its demographic tailspin, and the deep slide of the Japanese Miracle into the dreary doldrums of the Lost Two Decades (twenty years of economic stagnation on the heels of astounding national economic performance). Large numbers of young Japanese, like the children of many industrialized nations, are putting off family life and childbearing, floating free of all other civic and social attachments—except for attachment to work. (This is the much-mocked Japanese loyalty to firm.) Why, then, are Japanese parents pushing their children so strongly into an education and economic system that appears to be rending them apart? Takahata’s bamboo cutter suggests self-loathing and greed at the root of Japanese modernity.
Takahata is not just a critic of Japanese modernity and a masterful storyteller; he’s also one of the great visual innovators in the history of animation, thanks in part to the good collective work of the world famous Studio Ghibli. Takahata founded Ghibli with his one-time student and long-time collaborator, the great Hayao Miyazaki. The two briefly experimented with digital techniques but eventually scrapped the effort, choosing to remain partisans of traditionally drawn illustrations. Miyazaki responded to the digital encroachment by maturing as a painterly illustrator; Takahata returned to the spirited days of a youthful sketch artist. His great skill is design.
Lurking behind Takahata’s turn (or return) to sketch-like illustrations is a rejection of the technological smoothness and denseness of the computer generated image. With his last two films, My Neighbors the Yamadas and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Takahata has foregone the fuller imagery of his earlier Ghibli films, instead working in a granular, imperfect style that hews close to the sketch pad. The animation of My Neighbors the Yamadas has the flow and quality of a highly-expressive doodle: pencil-based, sparsely colored, and more reminiscent of a Sunday comic strip than a feature film. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is similarly minimalist, but features much thicker, coal-based line work, and nearly impressionistic uses of watercolor. The effect is beautiful and wild, almost primal. At times the film’s images seem to emerge coevally with the story, as if a youthful savant was sketching the tale as it unfolded in his mind. This minimalist foundation allows Takahata to fluidly illustrate up or down, so to speak, either by increasing the detail and crispness of the line work or descending into murkier, rougher strokes depending on the emotional needs of the story. In one scene, as Princess Kaguya flees from her mansion, she morphs into a red, black, and white blur—the animation is stunning.
But despite the apparent spontaneity and fluidity of the images in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, they are also efficient, expressive, and elegant—the marks of a director in complete control of the line work in his film. No more than needed; lines few, perfect, beautiful; a fertile image. Like a Bashō poem (Barnhill translation):
I don’t want to push the comparison very far. Takahata is no Bashō. But the line and color work of his late films emanate from the same quintessentially Japanese spirit (of which the 17th century Bashō is a key voice): a haiku-like ordering of distilled images, cut down to their most needed parts, evoking a deeper, higher, and fuller order of things, even when apparently wild.
Takahata’s aesthetic response to the digital is of a piece with the larger ethos of Ghibli. Both Takahata and Miyazaki are fierce critics of Japan’s monetizing and technologizing of human life. Miyazaki wants his films to spur children to new hope and action in the daunting face of modern Japanese life, to figure out “how to start,” as he puts it in Turning Point, a collection of Miyazaki’s writings from 1997 to 2008. In contrast, Takahata’s films pitilessly follow the darker logic of Japanese modernity. The beauty of a child spoiled by avarice is his image of modern Japan.
By the end of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the bamboo cutter repents and gravely regrets the tortuous refashioning of his fairy daughter into an urbane, cool cosmopolite. But when Heaven descends to re-collect her, unlike the stoic ascent featured in the original folktale, Takahata’s Kaguya leaves Earth with deep, heartrending regret. She has been betrayed by the subconscious ambitions of her father.
Just prior to her heavenly ascent, knowing the hour was near, the modern Kaguya returned alone to the village where the bamboo cutter first found her. I would have been happy here, she says. When she sees an impoverished peasant bowl maker, whom she loved as a girl, she tells him, I would have been happy with you. And that’s what Takahata’s oeuvre is fundamentally about, the loss of happiness once found among the “birds, bugs, beasts, grass, trees, flowers.”