Cannes: The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no Monogatari) review

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is based on a folktale that’s familiar to many people in Japan but not in West. Nonetheless, it shares many similarities with a whole host of Western folktales, right from the opening scenes of a humble bamboo cutter discovering a tiny girl in an illuminated bamboo shoot. In France, he might well have found her in a cabbage.

The bamboo cutter and his wife care for the young girl, raising her in their country home. Having quickly morphed into a baby she then begins to grow at an accelerated rate. After the forest and magical bamboo begin to yield fine linen and gold, the woodcutter decides that the girl must be a princess.

But the local kids don’t exactly agree and give her the more lowly nickname of Lil’ Bamboo when they spot her toddling around. These early scenes featuring the baby Kaguya are the sweetest and most gentle in the film, and one sequence that shows her learning to crawl by mimicking frogs is so charmingly conceived and convincingly animated that children in my screening were squealing in delight – and so were some of the adults too.

The story soon moves to ‘The Capital,’ with the woodcutter doing everything in his power to have his adopted daughter recognised as a princess. He invites a series suitors to bid for her hand, which leads to a very amusing series of comic trials. But as we move along, the film is a developing a more melancholy and plaintive tone.

Kaguya dreams of returning to her more simple country life and, in a sequence so astonishing it took my breath away, she dreams of fleeing the capital. As she runs, fabric billowing in the wind, the animation comes to reflect her desires, the brush strokes becoming elongated and more impressionistic as she moves rapidly in a blur of emotion. It’s an extraordinary episode and utterly unforgettable.

The animation style of The Tale of Princess Kaguya might seem rather simplistic at first glance, with the characters sketched rather than being more intricately detailed. This first impression is deceptive, however, and there is a great deal of complexity and beauty in the animators’ brush strokes and charcoal lines.

As this is a folktale and it’s being told as such, there is a little repetition and some conspicuous foreshadowing .Yet there is something rather comforting about this style of storytelling, like a welcoming, warm embrace. Interestingly, though, and rather pleasingly, director Isao Takahata has told a story that does not follow the patriarchal and materially aspirational line that many folktales hold within them. His Kaguya is not interested in the life of a princess, in marrying a prince or even in the fineries that come with a life of privilege, all the way until the film’s powerful, final scenes.

With its simply wondrous animation, beautiful story and heartening, feminist ideas, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a utter gem. Studio Ghibli continue their near-perfect run of frankly incredible animated features.