The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Youth – like life itself – is fleeting. Some children are forced to grow up quickly through status or circumstances. Others are chomping at the bit to grow-up before their time. Either way, it takes a wondrous time in our lives and leaves it behind as if it were something to shed…and not cherish.

Leave it to a master storyteller like Isao Takahata to remind us how precious youth is; how full of colour and joy it should be, and just what should be offered up in exchange for leaving our youth behind.

Based on the folktale “The Tale of The Bamboo Cutter”, THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA begins with Okina, who is (you guessed it) a bamboo cutter. While working one afternoon, he sees a glowing bamboo shoot…and contained within it, a baby small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. He takes her home to raise with his wife, Ona. Soon though, the nature of the magic they have brought into their lives is revealed. The baby they have just adopted begins to grow at a staggering rate.

Eventually, Okina interprets another magical encounter as a sign that this child – who they have named Kaguya – is meant to be adopted into royalty. As they bring her to the palace, and she is indeed groomed to live as a princess, Kaguya becomes restless. At first, she longs for the mountainside life she was living with Okina and Ona…finding it more spirited: more her. Soon after, she finds herself dissatisfied with the character of the suitors who come to call on her.

By this stage, Kaguya hasn’t been in the world long enough to know what she wants.  However if her ambivalence towards the lavish lifestyle, and her dismissal towards her powerful suitors tell us anything, it is – to paraphrase the old song – that she still hasn’t found what she’s looking for.

One of the most striking things about THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA is its look; a design that seems rustically suited to the classic story. In an age where so much animation is crisp, clean, and polished, it’s bold to let a film so rustic and painterly unfold. This movie has an innocent look to it that suits its subject matter, creating something that feels timeless…something that can appeal to the young and those who can only wish they still were.

There are thoughts that this may be Takahata’s final film, and if that’s the case, then he has closed his career with an effort that is damned-near timeless.

Late in the story, Kaguya is reflecting on the reasons behind her magical appearance that afternoon in the bamboo forest. She declares – quite matter-of-factly – that she came here to live. In this moment, the entire faery tale becomes emblematic of our very lives. We all strike out on our own in the hopes to live a fuller life…whether it’s leaving our family home, chasing a new job, or moving to a whole new place. Behind every closed door, and across every bridge is another chance “to live”. To live though, we need to leave, and therein lies the beautiful paradox.

Life itself is made up of places we call “home” and people we call “family”, but for so many, to feel like we are truly living, we need to take all of those wonderful things and leave them behind.