Directed by Isao Takahata. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable.
For a compressed tour of Japanese culture at its most lively and soulfully refined, you won’t do better than The Tale of Princess Kaguya. You should definitely stick to the original-language version on offer at the Vancity Theatre in evening screenings, even if Disney always does a superb job dubbing Studio Ghibli's film with A-list English-speakers (Vancity is showing the English version in child-friendly matinee slots).
Ghibli cofounder Hayao Miyazaki, whose nostalgic The Wind Rises came out earlier this year, recently retired. But Isao Takahata, who turns 79 this month, is still working. The writer-director of the recent Grave of the Fireflies has been trying to make Kaguya for more than 50 years. As Japan’s oldest recorded story, “Taketori Monogatari” (or “Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”) predates the world’s first novel, Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, by at least a century. And it contains most of the themes that would continue to matter to story-spinners in Japan and everywhere else.
It concerns an aged couple (Takeo Chii and Nobuko Miyamoto) that discover a tiny, perfectly formed girl inside a bamboo shoot. Upon arrival at the pair’s rustic hut, she starts growing at a phenomenal rate. Voiced by Aki Asakura (Chloë Grace Moretz in the dubbed version), the girl falls in love with the lush countryside, and a local boy (Kengo Kora) added to the fable by Takahata. When the bamboo cutter finds gold and silken cloths in the same grove, he’s convinced that heaven has destined the girl to live like nobility in an urban palace, and she begins training for stifling court life in Kyoto.
Ghibli films tend towards a feminist, animistic slant on both human nature and the other kind, in which flora and fauna are cherished and not ruined by bipeds. Princess Kaguya (her name means “shining”) turns out to be a fierce critic of class/gender folly and phony behaviour in general. And the director’s confidently 2-D drawing style—which moves relentlessly (in a brisk 137 minutes) through soft watercolours and hard-edged woodblock-print styles to something evoking Hindu cosmology—makes this Tale something you’ll never forget.