Better Living Through Minimalism: On the Soul of 'The Tale of the Princess Kaguya'

 
© Studio Ghibli

© Studio Ghibli

 

by Tim Markatos

The first thing anyone will tell you about Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is how sublimely beautiful it is. Alas, the particular Japanese flavor of Princess Kaguya’s artistry tends to table deeper discussion about its meaning. Digging through old reviews of the film in the English press, you’ll encounter the obligatory sentence or two acknowledging the film’s unique aesthetic sensibility. Princess Kaguya, we’re told, is “a watercolor sketchbook come to life;” it’s “exquisitely drawn with both watercolor delicacy and a brisk sense of line;” it “boasts a sketchier, more impressionistic palette” than other Studio Ghibli films; the “endless visual beauty that seems to partake in a kind of pictorial minimalism,” renders it “a true work of art.” What all this lavish praise doesn’t explain is why, precisely, the hand-drawn aesthetic matters for the particular story being told.

My own knowledge of Japanese history and culture extends only far enough to know that Takahata’s film is based on the oldest and most beloved Japanese folktale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Nevertheless, the aesthetics of Princess Kaguya possess the kind of thematic power and beauty that transcend the particular and break into the universal. In other words, it’s a Ghibli film just like any other—except for the minor detail that Princess Kaguya had a production quite unlike any other film the studio to that point had produced.

When Takahata began work on Princess Kaguya in the late 2000s, he had been on a filmmaking hiatus since 1999’s My Neighbor the Yamadas. More loosely-drawn than the vibrantly-colored and cel-animated films that had until then been Studio Ghibli’s mainstay, Yamadas was a hit with audiences in Japan, but wasn’t met with the same enthusiasm within the studio. (Hayao Miyazaki, notably, was peeved that his production team on Spirited Away had to essentially relearn their old animating habits after they had been out working for Takahata on Yamadas.) In part because he wasn’t getting any younger—though just as much because the traditional animation system at Ghibli wasn't agreeable to continued tinkering with his preferred new style—Takahata had to be convinced back into the director’s chair for Princess Kaguya.

Once back, Takahata commenced what was to be an unconventional and rather tortuous production. First, and perhaps most surprisingly, as we learn upfront in the making-of documentary Isao Takahata and His Tale of the Princess Kaguya, came principal voice recording, almost all of which was finished before any art for the film—storyboards included—had been drawn. An unusual order of operations, but a deliberate one: Takahata intended to let the emotions and improvisations of his voice actors shape the visual style the film would finally take, rather than obstruct his actors’ creativity by forcing them to fit their work into a predetermined mold.

Only after voice recording did storyboarding and animation finally begin—though not without a few more curveballs pitched to the production team. By this point in his aesthetic considerations, Takahata had settled on an animation style that used quick-and-dirty pencil work to convey roughness and incompleteness. (He himself would do no drawings for the film at any point in production; his vision, communicated entirely in words, was left quite literally in the hands of his animators.) While the finished film certainly looks effortless—at least for those of us who like to imagine we would be pretty dexterous with a stick of charcoal, given the chance to draw something as seemingly simple as a grove of bamboo—it was anything but easy for the 80-person freelance staff on Takahata’s team, all of them veteran animators experienced in the exact opposite style their director was now asking them to adopt.

Takahata’s challenging directives extended to even his longtime collaborators. Art director Kazuo Oga, making a U-turn from the hyper-detailed work he did for Takahata on 1991’s Only Yesterday, switched to watercolor painting, a messier, more impressionistic style that affords few chances to correct mistakes. The colorists, meanwhile, arranged each scene individually, rather than using a set palette across the entire film, in a process that could take as long as 6 hours for each cut…in a film of over 1000 cuts.

Though originally scheduled to be released in theaters alongside Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises in summer 2013, Princess Kaguya was too ambitious to meet its original deadline. A delay of several months and an extraordinary last-minute hustle from the team got Princess Kaguya into theaters by the end of the following year. The film that played before audiences would have caught anyone familiar with its production history by surprise; all that labor over a work of extraordinary simplicity.

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Perhaps it’s fitting that Takahata took so long to bring his version of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter to the screen; definitive adaptations don’t just fall out of the sky—or turn up at the root of a bamboo stalk, as it were.

The movie announces its intentions to stick to its folk tale source upfront: “Once upon a time there lived a bamboo cutter,” a female narrator coos over the opening frames of a bamboo grove panning toward the sound of an ax chopping wood. When the camera arrives at the source of the noise, we see the bamboo cutter in question, a distant background figure facing away from the viewer. The disembodied narration, originating outside the story and belonging to none of its characters, when coupled with this third-person perspective, situates us firmly in the fairy tale genre. More significantly, the narration contextualizes the images we see on screen and how we’re supposed to interpret them aesthetically. Remove the narrator and we could very well be looking at a child’s illustrations of a favorite bedtime story; add her back in and suddenly the images have more gravity, in spite of their briskness. If a narrator’s “Once upon a time...” primarily anticipates particular storytelling conventions—changes in fortune, lessons learned along the way—it secondarily functions as an exhortation to pay attention.

Almost immediately, the film’s visual minimalism compels us to heed this call to listen up and lean in. The first quarter of the movie, set in the Japanese countryside and teeming with all manner of wildlife, boasts a soundscape of chirping, buzzing, snorting, and rustling, to say nothing of the realistically inchoate crying, laughing, and babbling of the baby and toddler Kaguya. Because the economy of visual information on screen helps stave off distractions within the frame, we find ourselves more attentive to, and thus more fully immersed in, the specific details of the world of the film.

Joe Hisaishi’s score supplements this effect, not by trying to sway our emotions to the director’s subjective reading of scenes but by doing the opposite. During production, Takahata urged Hisaishi to strive for objectivity in his music, so as to heighten our awareness of the grander narrative at work. Not that anyone would have doubted him, but Hisaishi rose to the occasion. Take the scene where Princess Kaguya frolics with a child’s joy in a technicolor wardrobe of urban garments. The sequence is underscored, and partly undermined, by a wistful piano melody. We’re allowed to partake in Kaguya’s delight, but the music won’t let us forget the fate awaiting her as a child of the Moon, destined to return there and forget her earthly emotions.

The inevitability of life’s sorrows and the joy to be found in spite of them; the growing pains of growing up; the divide between rural and urban living, eyes cast askance at the latter; the wonder of the natural world and the necessity of humans to commune with it: Princess Kaguya touches on many of the thematic hallmarks of Ghibli films. But here, more so than in any other of the studio’s films, Princess Kaguya’s minimalism is frank and instructive in a way that befits the fairy-tale genre to which it firmly belongs. When the bamboo cutter discovers a stash of gold in a bamboo shoot, the otherworldly treasure glows as if someone has just held up a candle to that corner of the paper (literally, then, in another world than the one the characters inhabit). The next shot—a rainy sky, a parchment drenched in uninviting grays and violently diagonal pencil strokes that assault a darkish mass of trees—drives home the warning that obscene wealth brings with it fearsome consequences. That it does this so subtly, efficiently, and artfully is yet another point in Takahata’s favor as a storyteller in full command of his medium and the collaborators who helped him realize it.

When Kaguya and her family move from the country to a palace in the city, the film gradually makes greater use of obtrusive backgrounds and more pointed use of negative space. The static and barrier-like walls that occupy large swaths of the canvas during this part of the story speak to the stultifying nature of urban living compared with country life. And on occasions the background fades away entirely, it's all the better to hone in on, say, a shot of Princess Kaguya having her eyebrows plucked in an episode of beautification-as-torture. With no background to disrupt our attention from the key action taking place in the foreground, we are dramatically drawn to the image of a suppressed tear—no more detailed than a pencil smudge!—escaping the refuge of Kaguya’s eyelids. Never has such an indictment of personal grooming as transgression against the natural order of the world (with elements of anti-patriarchal commentary thrown in besides) enjoyed a more gentle delivery.

The messages of Princess Kaguya are consequently easy to grasp, at risk of being blunt. It’s important, then, that the film adopt an aesthetic sensibility that softens the directness of its morals. Thus the apparent simplicity of the images and backgrounds in the film coexists with an underlying complexity. The film’s most universally lauded scene (which Joe Hisaishi declared an act of “radical” filmmaking when he first saw it) bears almost extreme witness to this: the sequence of the Princess fleeing from her naming banquet, shedding her urban raiment as she runs back to her rural motherland, concludes with a wordless, 30-second-long series of shots depicting a heavily-abstracted Kaguya tumbling across gray hills, interrupted in the foreground by harsh strokes of ink and charcoal. It's a perfect visual representation of her tumultuous and self-doubting mental state, but it's also a startling and unforgettable juxtaposition of minimalist form with maximalist content. How appropriate, then, that the simple components belying the complexity of this sequence—lines, textures, and colors in their barest and most visceral form—parallel the film’s unexpectedly complicated production.

To get to the root of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, Takahata stripped his film’s visuals down to their most essential elements and found the essence of the folktale therein. Ultimately, his approach is so powerful that simply being present with Princess Kaguya for its two-hours-and-fifteen-minutes runtime is enough to reinvigorate the soul. By the time it’s over, we’re reminded of that other Ghibli heroine who loses conscious memory of her adventures at the end of the film, Chihiro. Like the star of Spirited Away, we leave our experience with Princess Kaguya (as with all of the best Ghibli films) changed, our lives recontextualized, and no worse off for having to say goodbye to the worlds we’ve been permitted to inhabit for a few hours. Princess Kaguya herself may not be permitted to remember the lessons she’s learned on earth, but no matter. Her experience has become our responsibility: to go out into the world and live in it as Kaguya, Takahata, and the original teller of the folk tale would want us to.


Tim Markatos is a writer and photographer from Boston who currently lives in Washington, DC. He runs the newsletter Movie Enthusiast, an experiment in improving aesthetic and cinematic literacy among casual movie lovers.