STUDIO Ghibli have a reputation for displaying a consistency for making enchanting, funny and moving animated films and with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, their 19th official feature, their trend for consistency continues.
Based on the Japanese fable The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter and with a visual style that could make this easily pass as an animated work from the 1970s, the film starts with a bamboo cutter named Sanuki discovering a tiny girl inside the bamboo he has just cut.
With his reaction as one of understanding bewilderment, he takes her in at his and his wife’s house. Seconds after arriving, the girl miraculously grows in size and goes from fitting in the palm of the bamboo cutters hand to developing into an ordinary-sized baby, only to grow in size yet again shortly after.
Within screen minutes and several more rapid transformations, the girl, by now given the name of Princess, is now walking, talking, adventurous and happily settled in her new home.
However, as the film progresses, the surrogate family realise that her apparent position as an actual princess needs to be put in place and soon, they uproot from life in the forest to the city to develop herself as a princess of the people, leaving her newly found friends behind. As she struggles to adjust to her new life, the secret as to how she got to earth in the first place slowly gradually falls into place, resulting in one of the most heart-wrenching conclusions in a film of the decade thus far.
Filled with light-hearted humour and emotionally charged storytelling mixed with inventive and intelligent storytelling, this proves not all animated films have to adapt to the basic three way structure commonly seen in American films. From the reactions of the bamboo cutter and his wife as they watch Princess rapidly aging within minutes to an intense night scene where Princess escapes from the palace, a correct balance of comedy and drama is all to see.
The drama of the film is not just a welcome usage to this film, it is also wholly genuine. Princess is not an alien but a human being who happens to possess magical powers such as her ability to age and grow fast or randomly disappear. The question that the film poses is how she got into that position she is in. As we watch the life she lives in detail, the intrigue as to what could have happened and what could happen eventually remains paramount. As the twist of her existence is revealed, the film pulls into emotional territory that is not usually seen in animation but succeeds enormously thanks to its range of sympathetic characters and carefully absorbed situation.
Ghibli have a tendency to produce animated films that would normally work in live-action such as the devastating post-Hiroshima story Grave of the Fireflies or last year’s superb WW2 Japanese fighter pilot biopic The Wind Rises. They act as the opposite of American animation and act as though not all animated films have to be based around talking toys, friendly dragons and singing ogres.
By displaying various traits or focusing on non-traditionalist animated stories in some of their works, their sense of originality that lacks in American animation leaves Ghibli as without any shadow of a doubt, one of the most reliable areas in world cinema.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a beautifully crafted and diverse story about discovery, existence and transition which is not just another enjoyable work from the Studio Ghibli canon but also the first truly impressive film to come out this year.