Traditional cel animation is a bit of a dying art in America these days. Since the Pixar revolution of the last twenty years, the majority of American animated films that reach the silver screen are born from computers, relentlessly perfecting technique and smoothing out edges. After two decades of technological advances, computer generated animation has become ubiquitous, practically the only player in the game beyond a handful of stop motion projects from specific studios (Laika and Aardman), and foreign imports like The Illusionist or Ernest and Celestine. Throughout this rising tide, the venerable and venerated Studio Ghibli has stood strong, never abandoning hand-drawn animation even as it has fallen out of vogue. Hayao Miyazaki, the face of Ghibli, may have retired after 2013’s stellar The Wind Rises, but he is not the only man to make his name there. Toiling alongside him all along has been Isao Takahata, whose Grave of the Fireflies was a critical success in the 80’s but otherwise has not had nearly as much success stateside. Nearly thirty years later, his time may have come with the release of Ghibli’s newest project, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
The film begins in the Japanese countryside in the home of a bamboo cutter (Takeo Chii in the original Japanese, James Caan in the English redub) and his wife (Nobuko Miyamoto/Mary Steenburgen), who come across the infant Kaguya (Aki Asakura/Chloe Grace Moretz) hidden away in a strange, glowing bamboo shoot. She magically grows rapidly, befriending the local children, including Sutemaru (Kengo Kora/Darren Criss), but is torn away from that life when the Bamboo Cutter discovers shoots full of gold and fine linen gowns, convincing him that Kaguya is destined for the life of a princess. He buys her a palace and hires Lady Sagami (Atsuko Takahata/Lucy Liu) to teach her the ways of the Japanese elite. Kaguya, though, has no interest in such a life, and finds herself increasingly bored by the attention of arrogant suitors and depressed by what her life has become. She longs for the simpler times living in the forest playing with Sutemaru, but also hides a secret about her true nature.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya, arguably more than other Studio Ghibli projects, feels like a living story book. Lush watercolors are barely contained by wildly sketched, impressionistic charcoal lines. Backgrounds often fade into white as they approach the borders of the screen, further accentuating its fairy tale qualities. The animation certainly bears the hallmarks of previous Ghibli projects, soulful and emotional, continuing to bring innocence to the screen, whether through a young child or forest animal, in a way no one has ever come close to approaching. But Takahata also is not afraid to dirty up the movement as well; characters often jerk their way across the frame, especially while running, as the lines are scarcely capable of keeping up to the subjects trying to escape them.
Never is this more clear than In the film’s singular bravura sequence, Kaguya runs from her palatial prison in the midst of a marathon party in her honor (in which her role consists of sitting in a room while others admire her from afar), stripping off layer upon layer of fancy robes, leaving a trail of her vestments behind. She escapes into the primordial forest for a taste of freedom, a memory of her former life, but it is just that. In a flash, she is back where she begun, lonely in that room, adored but not adoring, crippled under the weight and import of her myriad gowns. The film plays coy with whether this dash from her intended life is real or imagined, a bit of magical realism in a world of real magic. It is scenes like these that give The Tale of the Princess Kaguya its everflowing momentum, even as it flirts with a bout of disinterest in its elongated second act. Its story requires Kaguya to feel bogged down by the pomp and circumstance of her restrictive princess-hood, and there are a scant few times when that bogging threatens to transmit to the audience. Yet there is always wonder percolating beneath the surface, threatening to break through, keeping the film buoyant.
The story of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, one of a budding woman rebelling against a feudal patriarchy, is familiar to modern audiences, the stuff of Mulan and Brave and (to a slightly less direct extent) Frozen. But the energy and care Takahata and Studio Ghibli have shown in putting together this project have elevated the proceedings into something altogether more special. This is a film of limitless imagination, a deep well of empathy that ignites the senses and engages the mind. It ends the way all of these Ghibli films seem to end with a surge of emotion leaving only the hardiest in the audience able to hold back tears. Between The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and The Wind Rises, Studio Ghibli has continued to prove again and again that traditional animation still has a place in the modern animated feature landscape. Time will tell, but this could easily be seen as one of Ghibli’s great triumphs.