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.

Animation Magazine - - Anime -

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.”

Adding Character

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.”

Broad In­flu­ences

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.”

Di­rec­tor Isao Taka­hata sought a vi­tal, sim­pli­fied look that de­vi­ated from trad­tional an­i­ma­tion.

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