Oscar-nominated The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the latest offering from cult Japanese animators Studio Gibli (Spirited Away, The Wind Rises). The story is based on a Japanese folktale about an old, poor bamboo cutter and his wife who discover a magical being in the form of a small girl (Princess Kaguya) and raise her as their daughter. In exchange, the bamboo cutter is magically gifted with piles of gold and decides to move the family to a life of opulence in the city befitting a celestial being. When news of the Princess Kaguya’s mysterious beauty spreads, grasping suitors scramble to win her hand in marriage but her true desire is to return to a simpler life with her childhood friends in the bamboo cutter’s cottage.
The film’s charm lies in the way it navigates familiar fairy tale motifs – coming of age, the corruption of riches, the unworthy suitor, the quest for true love – with a genuinely subversive eye. Some have described Princess Kaguya as a feminist tale, and indeed the exquisitely drawn relationship between Princess Kaguya and her mother, as well as the centrality of her character in driving the narrative, support that sentiment. But this is also a film that asks ambitious questions about the clash of the temporal and spiritual worlds, the nature of life, death, loss and longing. The central struggle is not for a straightforward ‘happy ending’ but for a sense of meaning as the world-weary Princess Kaguya grapples with the harsh realities of human life.
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why, but Princess Kaguya strikes a deeply melancholic note with a hypnotic, meditative tone that somehow occupies the space between real and unreal, earthly and heavenly. Crucially Princess Kaguya showcases the emotional depth and texture that only hand-drawn animation can truly deliver. The visual style is moody and evocative, moving from a light, luminous almost water-colour quality to charcoal-black shadows and raw, impressionistic scrawls. This – com bined with an ethereal score – results in a hauntingly mesmeric masterpiece that creeps beneath the skin and truly transports the viewer into an enchanting world of myth and magic.