かぐや姫の物語 (Kaguya-hime no Monogatari) or The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the poignant interpretation of the classic folktale by none other than Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata. Like The Wind Rises, which is another Studio Ghibli feature, Kaguya-hime was also released on 2013 and is also considered the swan song of one of the studio’s prominent directors. Like Wind, too, Kaguya-hime‘s sights were complemented and even elevated in some scenes by Joe Hisaishi’s consistently thoughtful music. But that’s where the similarities end.
While Miyazaki reveled in the technical wonders afforded by modern technology, Takahata opted to showcase delicate visuals through sketch-like strokes, contemplative white spaces and a soft palette. The aesthetic was reminiscent of ホーホケキョとなりの山田くん (Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun) or My Neighbors the Yamadas, the last Takahata did for Studio Ghibli back in 1999 before Kaguya-hime. It must be noted that Kazuo Oga and Osamu Tanabe, the people responsible for the film’s visual quality and movement, were handpicked by Takahata himself for their abilities and sensibilities, which, in hindsight, were great directorial decisions, for their combined styles were used to undeniably greater effect this time around as it perfectly framed and focused on the quiet sadness and tragedy of the enduring story.
The director’s values and ideologies also infused and guided this interpretation, just as it was with Miyazaki’s Wind. Unlike the mess we see in Wind though, Takahata was more careful and subtle in incorporating his prejudices into Kaguya-hime. There’s none of the “I’m old, I don’t care what you think anymore” Miyazaki brashness that Wind had, which made for an experience that invited everyone to let their guards down – an unconscious action on our part but a calculated risk for Takahata-san who heavily relied on our doing so for us to fully appreciate the film’s denouement.
We see how Takahata-san has higher regard for the rural life compared to urbanity and all its trappings and ceremonies. We also see how much he is for breastfeeding and how he tried to normalize it by depicting it in a very casual almost nonchalant manner. This is challenging in particular, given Japan’s long standing tradition with nipple exposure in anime. Let’s not forget how Kaguya-hime is also a very feminist reimagining of the original: one in which our heroine is finally portrayed as a person we are encouraged to connect and relate to and sympathize with, not as the enigmatic eponymous plot device that she was in the original cautionary folktale or the cute but annoyingly shallow version of her in Sailor Moon which only schoolgirls or those like-minded can relate to. Finally, we also see in the film a director who, even as he tries to open minds with not so universal techniques or advocacies, is well entrenched in his roots and culture. He knows, loves and respects his country’s lore — Kaguya-hime is undeniable proof of such fidelity.
What I saw in Isao Takahata and his Kaguya-hime that I found lacking in Miyazaki and his Wind is one’s humility and deference to one’s source material. While Miyazaki was quick to name everything and everyone who inspired him with Wind, Takahata only did necessary deviations from Kaguya-hime‘s source. This is where the two masters departed from each other’s approach and where, in my opinion, one master got caught up with the sublunary and the self, while the other transcended to deliver a fully realized swan song.
Takahata, being the insightful man that he was in the Ghibli Museum video tour I saw a couple of times, probably knew deep inside that the story was already perfect the way it was. All he needed to do was direct how it would transition from the static dated page to the living modern frame. And that’s exactly what he did. He stepped up with scenes and subplots of his own when there were gaps or contextual disconnects, but stuck to the source as faithfully as possible. That kind of attitude reveals a stable and mature person who has a complete understanding of why tales like Kaguya-hime‘s have lasted for so long. They know that stories are the heart, the core of what they do, not some accessory they can make light of.
I think Takahata-san knew that his job was only to pick which stories he should tell and to facilitate their realization on the screen. He probably knew that it shouldn’t always be about him, what he wants or what he feels is right. Sometimes, having a great story and doing right by it is enough.
Little did Takahata-san know that in The Tale of Princess Kaguya, what he did was definitely more than enough, in a very good way. It was beauty, joy, heartache and magic; and quite the fitting swan song for someone like him, because he did deliver and even managed to exceed expectations – and the whole world will remember he did. I, for one, think there’s no better, more subarashii and kanpeki way to bow out.
Director: Isao Takahata | Producer: Seiichiro Ujiie Yoshiaki Nishimura | Writer: Isao Takahata Riko Sakaguchi | Cast: Aki Asakura Kengo Kora Takeo Chii Nobuko Miyamoto Yuji Miyake | Music: Joe Hisaishi | Art Direction: Kazuo Oga | Animation: Osamu Tanabe | Planning: Toshio Suzuki | Production: Studio Ghibli | Distribution: Toho (Japan, 2013) GKIDS (US, 2014) Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (France, 2014) |Year: 2013 | Length: 137′ | Genre: Anime Drama Screen Adaptation | Spoken Language: Japanese | Subtitles: English | Country: Japan