Hayao Miyazaki, who directed the Oscar-nominated “The Wind Rises,” gets most of the ink and acclaim when anyone talks about Japanese animated films. But his co-founder at Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, also directs a movie on rare occasions – thrice in the last 15 years – and remains a potent force at 79. “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” his adaptation of a Japanese folk tale, requires patience and repays it with visual beauty and a profound message.
A bamboo cutter finds a tiny girl wearing an elegant robe inside a bamboo stalk outside their village. Later, he finds a stack of gold inside another stalk and fine clothes inside a third, so he assumes she’s meant to be a princess. He buys a mansion in the capital city; there they reside, waiting for the teenaged Kaguya to choose a husband. Eventually, the Emperor joins the parade of suitors.
Takahata takes his time. Early scenes of little Kaguya waddling around her rural house or walking in the bamboo groves reveal a placid childhood touched with a reverence for nature. Playmates accept that she grows in sudden bizarre spurts, calling her “L’il Bamboo,” and they sing of eternal cycles for plants and animals: “Flower, bear fruit and die/ Be born, grow up and die/ Lifetimes come and go in turn.”
The story has comedy and tragedy, sometimes in the same scene: Ridiculous suitors promise impossible things and risk fortunes or lives to get them, but one dies in the attempt. Her refusal to take any of them comes from the belief that she has another destiny, and she’s proved correct.
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At first, the images resemble a picture book: simple line drawings with static backgrounds, faces on which only lips and eyes move. Designs become more complex as the story does.
One character stands out oddly: Lord Akita, who gives Kaguya her formal name. The other men have sketched-in, cartoonish faces; Akita’s has been carefully rendered and looks like Takahata himself. The man who gives Kaguya her identity in the film may be the one who gave her an identity on film – a moment of whimsy, perhaps, from this elderly master.
This is a Buddhist story, start to finish. (Buddha even has a cameo at the end.) So her ascension to high rank doesn’t bring happiness, as it might in a Grimm fairy tale. She realizes she was meant to live in the village where she frolicked with friends and had a crush on a potter’s son, but she can’t turn back time.
Takahata, who co-wrote the script with Riko Sakaguchi, closes with the message that lies at the heart of all Buddhist teachings: Those who become attached to worldly things without regard for their own spiritual core must suffer. The ending of “Kaguya” may seem sad to someone raised on Western tenets, but I’d guess a Buddhist will find it satisfying and true.