Throughout his career, Isao Takahata wanted to truly show what animation was capable of. You can see that in almost every film he directed throughout his lengthy career including his noble work within Studio Ghibli. He has directed some terrific animated films from the emotional riveters like "Grave of the Fireflies" and "Only Yesterday" as well as light yet very fun films like "Pom Poko" and "My Neighbors the Yamadas". He's someone that pushed to show what animation could do that live action just simply cannot achieve and I think the film that truly defined his goals is "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya", a film that sadly ended up being his final film as he died five years after completing it. There have been many animated films that Studio Ghibli have made that I have absolutely loved, and this is one that truly transcends their catalog. This is not only one of the best films that Studio Ghibli has ever made, but it's also one of the best-animated films I've ever seen.
One day within a bamboo grove, a bamboo cutter (Takeo Chii) notices a glowing bamboo shoot that has a miniature girl within it. He is awestruck by the tiny girl and believes it must've come from the heavens and takes it home to show his wife (Nobuko Miyamoto) where he discovers that like bamboo, the young girl whom the cutter calls Princess (Aki Asakura) grows very fast and soon grows from a baby to a child in a short amount of time. After discovering some gold and robes within the same bamboo grove, the cutter moves the family from the countryside to a mansion within the capital much to the dismay of the Princess, who is then given a new name of Kaguya, and she is soon forced to undertake training from a governess named Lady Sagami (Atsuko Takahata) to become noble. And that's all I'm going to say about the plot of this film.
This is a film that truly had me awestruck as I was watching it. As I stated at the beginning of the review, this truly is one of the finest animated films to ever have been made and you could truly see the artistry that Studio Ghibli put into this film blossoming. The film is based on an ancient Japanese folktale and it's a story that Isao Takahata wanted to tell dating all the way back to the 60s. I once wrote that animation and fantasy have been intertwined since the very beginning and I could clearly see why he wanted to bring this tale to life because it truly deserves to be told within animation. It's such an emotional journey from the very beginning as we see Kaguya grow up within the hills of the countryside and bond with the young boys who live there before she is forcibly moved to the capital where she struggles to adjust to the nobility that she is forced into. The whole film is an emotional rollercoaster and it leads to moments that will make you laugh, frustrated, and bawl. One particular moment that really stood out to me was when Kaguya was taken outside the city to see the cherry blossoms. It's a happy moment for her until she accidentally bumps into a young child and the family quickly apologizes to her forcibly bringing her back down to Earth and reminding her of whom she has now become. There are a lot more moments like that within the film and despite the film being over two hours, this film is never dull for one second since each one is told perfectly. The themes in the film are also very poignant as well as Takahata presents themes that include frustrations on how women are suppressed, the beauty of life, and also the dangers of parenting. It builds to a tragic and heartbreaking conclusion that left me with both tears in my eyes and feeling absolutely speechless.
The animation in this film is some of the best animation ever put to screen. Takahata was always someone who wanted to experiment with his animation throughout the later years of his career and this film is the pinnacle of that experimentation. Takahata wanted to make the film not look realistic and much more like art to get a much deeper resonation from the audience and this was absolutely the correct decision. This film is dazzling from start to finish as I felt like I was watching actual ancient Japanese art being brought to life. The watercolor backgrounds from Kazuo Oga stand out in particular as they have such an elegant look with their simplicity. It also leads to some superbly drawn moments with the best one being Kaguya running away from the mansion in both despair and anger and the animation becoming very rough and disjointed which matches perfectly with her conflicting emotions. I guess this leads me into discussing the characters who also resonated with me deeply. Kaguya might be one of the best heroines that Studio Ghibli has ever made and was one I really emotionally connected with. She's a character that truly wants to be happy and experience the joy and life of the world but feels restrained at almost every chance. However, those few moments of joy she does have, particularly with her childhood friend Sutemaru (Kengo Kora) and her mother are some wonderful scenes to watch. I could feel her frustration as well, particularly with how the bamboo cutter seems to be doing most of the deeds regarding her for himself rather than his daughter's happiness. The cutter is also a fascinating character as you could tell that he does truly love his daughter though shows his love in a flawed manner and eventually has to come to grips with the mistakes he makes by the end of the film. Even smaller characters like five suitors who wish to marry Kaguya and a servant named Me no Warawa (Tomoko Tabata) have some funny moments as well.
In all, "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" is truly one of the finest animated films that has ever been made. The story is emotional and never dull for a second, the animation is gorgeous and some of the best I've ever seen, and the characters are perfectly crafted and resonant. This is a true masterpiece from Studio Ghibli that I cannot recommend enough. It's a gorgeous tale that'll truly be timeless and it is a grand swan song from one of the greatest animation directors to have ever lived.