Whenever the topic of Studio Ghibli comes up, inevitably casual consumers of anime are thinking about Hayao Miyazaki movies, not Isao Takahata movies. I remember having a conversation about Ghibli with one of my film professors, who likes some anime, and he was surprised that Grave of the Fireflies was a Studio Ghibli production. It’s not surprising when you realize that popular image of Studio Ghibli is its accessible family films like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. The somber and very-Japanese Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday don’t fit in with Ghibli’s popular image, and to be fair aren’t as fun to watch (though I’d rather sit through Grave of the Fireflies than My Neighbor Totoro). Takahata is Miyazaki’s senior, but he hasn’t enjoyed the same level of acclaim as Miyazaki. Yet Studio Ghibli wouldn’t exist without him, and I’m thankful that he was able to put out one more film this year, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
On the surface, one might think that Princess Kaguya would have been more suitable for Miyazaki. A fairy tale about a spunky lovable girl seems like the basis for a Miyazaki film, but after watching Kaguya I realized how perfect it was for Takahata. Takahata has never been interested in the fantastical European-like settings of Miyazaki’s works, and sets all of his stories in Japan. His films are approachable for outsiders with enough knowledge, but he is directly speaking to a Japanese audience. He assumes that viewers already know something about The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, and rather than trying to update it for a modern audience, it’s extremely old-school. Life for women in the 10th century (okay, all centuries really) was extremely limiting. Kaguya’s father, obsessed with fitting in with nobility and customs to escape his mountain peasant roots, has Kaguya raised to be a perfect princess. She’s forced to shave her eyebrows, paint her teeth black, and not allowed to be seen by her many suitors. Yet she maintains her playfulness and desire to be in the outside world. The film is sympathetic to her conflict and takes pleasure in seeing her outwit her suitors by making them eat their words and find the impossible objects they compare her to. Kaguya is the story of a young woman wishing to experience a world she is forbidden from due to society’s strict patriarchal rules. The ending is bittersweet. It’s sure to confuse many not familiar with the original folktale, but is successful at articulating what Kaguya has lost.
Two connections with Takahata’s previous works instantly sprang to mind while I was watching this film. One, the artstyle of Kaguya recalls the beautiful watercolor scenery of My Neighbors the Yamadas. Every brushstroke is detailed and gorgeously rendered, and during a dream sequence, comes apart chaotically to represent Kaguya’s inner conflict. It’s the visual standout of the entire film and left me breathless. The Wind Rises looked good, but it never seemed as though Miyazaki was pushing his artstyle. Takahata created a film that cannot be confused with any other Ghibli film and I thank him for that. Takahata’s reverence for the countryside, as seen in Only Yesterday, returns as well. Both Miyazaki’s and Takahata’s films have had environmental elements, but Takahata specifically seems critical of city-life. It works better for me here than it did in Only Yesterday. Kaguya’s nostalgia for the mountain makes more sense when you realize just how terrible and limiting being a noblewoman was back then.
I saw Princess Kaguya while I was taking a history seminar called “Women and Gender in China.” While Princess Kaguya is Japanese, not Chinese, I couldn’t help but compare it to the stories I had been reading in that class. The stories of how society restricted women put me in the right mindset for Kaguya. The professor of that seminar also saw Princess Kaguya the same weekend I did, and we had a great discussion after class about the movie and the original folktale. Rarely do I get to talk about anime in-depth like that with a non-anime fan, and a history professor to boot!
When asked which filmmaker I prefer, Miyazaki or Takahata, I must honestly say I prefer Miyazaki. The man has been able to make more films that resonate with me, and doesn’t have the reputation of going over-budget and taking forever to make movies (The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness features many Ghibli employees complaining about Takahata’s work ethic). However, I have much respect for Takahata. Not just because he was a co-founder of Ghibli, but because he always made a good contrast to Miyazaki. His voice reaches a smaller audience, but that smaller audience appreciates him for it. Miyazaki has mixed feelings toward him, saying he’s “abandoned him as a filmmaker” (again, watch The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness), but the two have a long history together. Takahata discovered Miyazaki. Without Takahata, would Miyazaki have become the internationally-acclaimed director he is today?
I hope The Tale of the Princess Kaguya gets an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. It’s hard to imagine anything beating The Lego Movie, but if Takahata’s potentially final film were able to win an Oscar, then it’d be a great victory for anime fans and a final huzzah for the dying Studio Ghibli.