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Kaguya Hime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) is quite unlike any Studio Ghibli offering that has gone before it. There are no benevolent forest spirits or spritely young witches to be found here; no soft, familiar faces or bright-eyed heroes with a passion for adventure; no piles of mouth-watering street food or freshly baked bread to drool over. This is a tale set in far simpler times, and although – with its thick, bold brushstrokes, muted colours and incomplete lines – it is quite the departure from the Ghibli releases many of us know and love, it still manages to be one of the studio’s most visually striking and emotive creations to date.

Based on the 10th-century folk tale known today as The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, Kaguya Hime treads ground familiar to most Japanese, but director Isao Takahata (of Grave of the Fireflies and whose last a feature-length film for the studio was some 15 years ago) explores themes that few had ever considered before, prompting many native Japanese to take to online forums to discuss the new film at length and express their surprise at seeing sides to the story that they never knew existed.

As with The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, Takahata’s film begins with an elderly farmer discovering a large glowing bamboo growing in the forest. Cutting into it, he finds a tiny, fully formed princess wearing elaborate robes sleeping inside. After carrying the miniature human home to his wife, the princess transforms into a baby, at which point the elderly couple resolve to raise her as their own, interpreting her initial appearance as a princess as a sign from the gods that the child is destined for great things.

The couple receive subsequent blessings in the form of gold and robes fit for the princess when she comes of age – which comes quickly, with those around the young girl marvelling at how she changes right before their eyes – and eventually decide to remove the girl from her humble countryside home in favour of a life of luxury in the city, wherein she is taught to act like a true princess – koto lessons, teeth blackening and all – and is courted by numerous rich, but ultimately unsavoury men with designs to make her their own.

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I will stop short of describing the events that follow, though not simply out of fear of spoiling the story for those unfamiliar with its source material. Rather, the real pleasure that is to be had here is in experiencing the range of emotions this simple, occasionally fantastic (in the traditional sense of the word) tale evokes throughout, at once dazzling with its unique, at times almost impressionistic, art style. The outcome of Kaguya Hime‘s tale will surprise few, but – just as if the same artists were given the works of the Brothers Grimm, already known to millions – it is in the telling that the magic resides.

To those who grew up with Hayao Miyazaki’s offerings, Kaguya Hime’s visual style may appear bland, and at times border on unfinished. Indeed, placed side-by-side with this summer’s Kaze Tachinu, the difference is night and day, but the former’s art style lends itself far better to this classic folk tale than Miyazaki’s own ever could, and the fact that it may not appeal to younger audiences is in many ways a blessing in disguise – Kaguya Hime is ultimately a tale of life lessons, sorrow and raw emotion; if this 31-year-old writer shed tears before the end credits rolled, you can guarantee that younger audiences will either leave theatres completely mortified or simply bored and confused as much of the film’s meaning will have flown right over their heads.

For adults, and those with a love of classic tales and Japanese culture, however, Kaguya Hime no Monogatari will not disappoint. It is beautiful, emotive, and undeniably haunting. Highly recommended.

Kaguya Hime no Monogatari is in theatres now all across Japan. The film is scheduled for a 2014 release in North America.  

Featured image: Studio Ghibli Poster image via Wikimedia
Video/images: YouTube 

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kaguya poster