The Tale of Princess Kaguya’s Exploration of Loss, Acceptance and the Transience of Life

While searching for Ghibli films to watch earlier this month, I came across Isao Takahata’s work and promptly slipped down the rabbit hole of the magical realism of his films, finding solace in their simplicity, nostalgia and transcendental charm. The late Takahata was the venerable and often unacknowledged (as compared to his companion, the legendary Hayao Miyazaki) co-founder of Studio Ghibli, known for directing prominent works such as The Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday, as well as the glorious Oscar-nominated film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which was his last work for Studio Ghibli before he retired.  

Based on an old Japanese folklore, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a seemingly simple story of a poor bamboo-cutter. One day, he discovers a tiny girl growing inside a bamboo stalk, and raises her along with his wife, choosing to call her “Princess.” He assumes that she’s a divine spirit sent down to their land for a higher purpose, and decides that she’s meant to live grandly. As Princess Kaguya grows, she finds herself in love with the simplicity and natural beauty of the woods and the humble life she’s born into, choosing to spend all her days dashing around the forest with her friends. Her father, however, blinded by his materialistic views, engineers all her decisions and exploits her affability at every turn, firmly believing that true satisfaction for his Princess would lie only in her having great material wealth and a rich husband.

Princess Kaguya co-operates with all of her father’s desires quietly, albeit unhappily, trusting that ultimately he must know what’s better for her. The only time the audience truly sees her revolt is in a dream, where the art style of the animation encounters a sudden shift from simple realism to obscure impressionism, the colours, along with the style, changing as well: from brighter tones to muted ones. This behavior of the colour palette continues throughout the film – although simple and modest throughout, it is still on occasions streaked in vibrant pastel colours when Kaguya is content in the woods, and takes on a subdued, dull spirit in moments of despair. In the dream, Kaguya runs back to the forest in an abstract blur, where she truly encounters both loss and acceptance for the first time when she realizes that the woods are empty and all her friends moved on to live someplace else. This integral encounter with her past shapes her future; it’s when she first realizes that her life didn’t wait for her and that’s when she loses the last of her childhood, and along with it, all her hope. In the next scene, Princess Kaguya is witnessed as a sombre young lady who duly does as she was trained to do by her father, without protest – spending her entire life in a sorrowful state until it’s time for her to go back to where she came from, which is when she realizes how momentary and special life is.

Isao Takahata, in this adaptation, manages to spin a pure, beautiful and bewildering tale, filled with intense, heart-wrenching emotion that enables the viewers to experience what it’s like to endure love, loss and regret, and above all, experience the impermanence and beauty of life, all in the span of two hours and seventeen minutes. The characters are realistic and relatable, prone to making mistakes and regretful decisions just like ordinary human beings. With the minimalist hand-drawn animation style and the radiance of Joe Hisaishi’s nostalgic and sentimental instrumentals, the film is raw, human and thought-provoking. The ending leaves the audience with an emotion that can only be described as thoroughly unnerving and broken-hearted. It brings up the true essence of what it means to be alive and human, how shallow the material world is, and how fleeting life can be and how one should live it to the fullest at every turn. While we’re busy poring over things that eventually don’t matter, life passes on swiftly and the decisions we make come back later to haunt us when it’s too late, filling us with grief and regret. The simplicity of nature and the beauty in the little, everyday things is inherently more pleasing than any materialistic illusions of happiness one might try to create.

Ultimately, all the words I know fail to describe the magic Takahata weaves in The Tale of Princess Kaguya. From its storytelling to its sound and visuals, this film is a deeply poignant tale that stays with you long after you finish watching it, and is a true masterpiece of animation and a timeless work of art in all aspects of cinematography.

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