With master animator Hayao Miyazaki announcing his retirement, a lot of the media attention for Studio Ghibli last year was focused around his final masterpiece, 'The Wind Rises'. For Australian audiences though, it wasn't the only Ghibli film released in 2014, and not the only one of significance. Also announcing his retirement was the other founding animator of Ghibli, Isao Takahata, and like Miyazaki, he had completed his swan song to coincide with it. And while 'The Wind Rises' is without question a monumental achievement, what Takahata delivered with 'The Tale of the Princess Kaguya' was a vision the likes of which animation had never seen.
Based on the oldest of Japanese folk tales, 'The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter', it is also the only Ghibli film based directly on a legend from Japanese culture. In medieval Japan, a Bamboo Cutter stumbles upon a miraculous sight - a tiny girl in a shining stalk of bamboo. Believing her to be a princess of the gods, he takes the girl back to his home with his wife, where she begins to grow at ridiculous pace. As she grows to become a woman, the old couple commit everything they have to give their Princess Kaguya a lifestyle deserving of her status, but though she enchants everyone she meets, the Princess Kaguya cannot escape an emptiness growing in her heart.
What Takahata has crafted with 'Princess Kaguya' is possibly the most beautiful animated film ever made. Taking his cue from ancient Japanese bamboo scrolls, the film forgoes cartoon animation from something far more impressionistic, each frame more akin to a charcoal drawing. The images literally fly across the screen like leaves in the wind, giving the film a feeling of tremendous delicacy. This matches the story perfectly, with Takahata maintaining the fable-like quality of the story.
The Princess Kaguya moves from her peasant existence into the constricting confines of high society, but ill-equipped to deal with the change. She is a character being pulled between two worlds, one of desire and one of duty, and to watch the film is to watch this young woman being pulled apart. As the Princess Kaguya grows and matures, so does the film, and the lightness that opens the film builds towards heartbreaking melancholy. All of a sudden, the images on screen erupt into passionate, violent fury, to the point that you feel the screen might explode from the emotional power. At 137 minutes, it's an overwhelmingly enormous film, and as the credits roll you find yourself totally overwhelmed by it. While Miyazaki has crafted animation into the most accessible and entertaining of mediums, Takahata wields the art form with a 'take no prisoners' approach, refusing to hold back in any way. This is easily the most artistically daring animated film in recent memory - you feel the edges of the medium being pushed to their extreme, and without a single computer in sight. This is such a distinctive work for the company, unlike anything in their catalogue, and you feel the incredible team of artists stepping into new territory. Even composer Joe Hisaishi, who has composed great scores for Miyazaki, somehow pulls off his most sublime work yet for this film, tender and haunting. If 'The Wind Rises' was Miyazaki's delicate love letter to his craft, 'Princess Kaguya' is Takahata's violent howl of passion, the work of an artist throwing all his soul and talent into every hand-drawn frame of the film.
What Takahata has crafted with 'Princess Kaguya' is possibly the most beautiful animated film ever made.
Like any great work of art, words aren't enough to describe 'The Tale of the Princess Kaguya', and this film is certainly a great work of art. In fact, part of me wonders whether, of all the great achievements of Studio Ghibli, if this might be their greatest of all. As a lover of animation, I was completely overwhelmed by the artistry and the soul of this beautiful film. I have never seen anything quite like it, and secretly hope I'll never seen anything like it again. 'The Tale of the Princess Kaguya' is a flat-out masterpiece.
PICTURE & SOUND
As always, Madman have given this latest Ghibli title the same impeccable Blu-ray transfer we've come to expect from them. The 1080p 1.85:1 transfer is simply gorgeous, and serves to bring out every organic texture in the rough-yet-meticulous animation. The colours leap right off the screen. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 tracks (both Japanese and English) are likewise sublime, the subtle sound design beautifully balanced and recreated from the theatrical presentation. I was waiting with bated breath to revisit 'Princess Kaguya' on Blu-ray, and I have not been disappointed.
Compared to most of the Ghibli packages, the one offered 'Princess Kaguya' is a surprisingly modest one. The main feature on offer is the Film Completion Announcement (40:08), a press conference with all the key artists discussing the making of the film. It's a long feature to sit through, but there are some nuggets of gold in there. There are also the Japanese Trailers (10:59) and the Japanese TV Spots (2:22). It's a pity they couldn't include the lengthy making-of documentary included in the U.S. release, but perhaps a proper release of that is somewhere down the track.