A Tale from Antiquity, Animated
Isao Takahata turns one of Japan’s most ancient stories into the heartbreakingly beautiful Tale of Princess Kaguya. By Charles Solomon.
The films of Isao Takahata range from the heartbreakingly poignant Grave of the Fireflies to the rude slapstick comedy of Pom Poko and the social satire of My Neighbors, the Yamadas. His most recent film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which had in October its American debut in New York via GKIDS, is based on the folk story The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The story is so old, Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the 11th century novel The Tale of Genji, called it “the ancestor of all romances.”
An old, kindly bamboo cutter finds an infant no bigger than his thumb hidden in a stalk of bamboo. He and his wife lovingly care for the tiny child, who quickly grows into a ravishing beauty. Using the gold he’s found in other bamboo shoots, the cutter takes his adopted daughter to the capital. As Princess Kaguya, she attracts a string of high-born suitors. But she refuses them all after discerning flaws in their characters. Eventually, she must return to her true home, the moon, where she forgets her life on Earth and joins the court of the Moon King.
Takahata discussed the film in a recent interview conducted via email. “The original Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is a very interesting classic of Japanese literature. But it doesn’t appeal to modern people,” he says. “The main character, Princess Kaguya, is an enigmatic figure whose thoughts we cannot fathom.”
To present the story to contemporary viewers, Takahata felt he couldn’t treat Tale as a museum piece. Although he preserved the Heian era (A.D. 794-1185) setting, the story had to appeal to 21st century audiences.
“I had no interest in displaying a 10th-century literary classic as if it were a picture scroll to be unrolled,” Takahata says. “My aspiration was to follow the original story fairly faithfully, yet retell it in a lively, fresh way to give a completely different impression from the original. I wanted to tell the ‘true story’ of Princess Kaguya in way that would be convincing to modern audiences.”
One major change Takahata made was the addition of the character of Sutemaru, a handsome, kind-hearted young man in the rural village where the bamboo cutter lives. Before she’s taken to the capital and forced to live the restricted life of a noblewoman, Kaguya cherishes the adventures she shares with the rough-hewn Sutemaru.
“I wanted to add the message that Princess Kaguya could have lived a common but happy life,” Takahata says. “She could have loved and been loved. Part of that message is that our Earth is a place worth living in. People should not yearn for other worlds, but live in this world in a lively, vital manner.”
Princess Kaguya is a strikingly lovely film. The backgrounds are delicate, unfinished watercolors, with edges that fade to the white paper. The images are evocative and poetic, rather than detailed depictions of the world the characters inhabit.
“I had long wanted to use this style. I was fed up with usual cel animation style, but I didn’t want to make a 3D CG film,” Takahata says. “Rather than increasing the visual density, I wanted to go the opposite way and omit as much as possible to create an animated film that had blank spaces, like fadedout pictures. My desire was to create a pictorial style that would stimulate people’s imagi- nations and stir memories deep in their minds. Sketches drawn in lines and quick washes of color are not fully complete pictures, so they exude vitality, and convey to the viewer the heartbeat of the animator.”
The look for Princess Kaguya was inspired by a wide spectrum of art and artists, from the films of Frédéric Back — with whom Takahata shared a long friendship — to the 12th century Japanese ink drawings Scrolls of Frolicking Animals, and Paul Cezanne’s use of unpainted areas of canvas. “I took hints from everywhere,” Takahata says.
In the capital, Kaguya yearns for the free, active life she led in the country with Sutemaru. Instead of simple cotton clothes, she’s weighed down in layers of silk and brocade. She must walk, stand and sit formally, blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (which was the fashion), practice calligraphy, and perform other social graces. Her only escape is music, for which she displays an extraordinary talent.
Frustrated by the rigid artificially of her life, Kaguya flees back to the country, scattering her torn finery along road. In this emotionally wrenching sequence, the animation grows rougher, more staccato and more dynamic, reflecting Kaguya’s anger and frustration.
“In using broken and wavy lines, my aim was not to create a style but a sharing of the palpitations between the animator and the viewer. I used this rough, wild touch in order to show not only the ferocity of the movement, but to express fury, excitement, and madness,” Takahata says.
“The animator scanned the rough drawings, and I watched them with him,” he says. “The pictures and movements are very shaky and rough. They’re full of energy; I marvel at how wonderful they are. But when those lines are cleaned up as a single line for cel animation, they lose their vitality. Whenever I saw that happen, I wished I maintain my physical energy, my motivation and my mental faculties. I’m an old man,” he says. “It also depends on whether there’s a funding source for the production and whether I can gain the cooperation of the kind of brilliant and talented staff I worked with on this project. So I don’t know if I can make another film.”