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Studio Ghibli Forever: An Initiation – ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’

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“Studio Ghibli Forever: An Initiation” is a series in which Jordan Brooks, having no experience with the animation house, seeks to discover the basis for the worldwide phenomenon that is Ghibli. The international theatrical retrospective of some of Ghibli’s most beloved features serves as the perfect introduction to the studio giant, and will hopefully afford fans and newcomers alike a chance to see these monumental films as originally intended. This is the the final entry of the series.

Drawn with the light touch of a charcoal pencil and watercolor paints, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is as ethereal and magnetic as its titular sovereign. As if read from the unfurling scroll of ageless human endeavor, Isao Takahata’s delicate masterpiece displays a life lived at double-speed, neatly, if not wistfully, presented from birth until “death.”

Found in the stalk of a bamboo shoot by, coincidentally, the bamboo cutter, the tiny Princess is taken home as if a gift from Heaven. Arriving at his modest residence, the cutter shows this tiny treasure to his wife, who is astonished by the miniature princess, and even more astonished when she transforms into a normal-sized baby girl. The elderly couple take it upon themselves to raise the child, aided by further gifts from Heaven, and decide (mostly by the cutter, and not so much by his begrudging wife) to raise her as nobility. Building a stately mansion in the capital, the cutter and his wife take the miraculously-aging Princess, who is now in her very early teens, from her country home to a life of solemn dignity and poise.

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Turning the profound joys of early fatherhood into the fearful inflexibility of raising another person, Princess Kaguya uses the familiar trope of an ignorant father to show this device for what it is: love. Blind, stupid love. Princess is rarely outwardly frustrated with her father and his chosen path for her, so her cool acceptance of this torturous existence finds its outlet in the hearts and minds of the audience. Choosing either to hate this humble man for thrusting nobility onto his unwilling daughter, or to simply understand it as a person doing what they think best, one must decide for themselves how to accept this narrative. This emotional ambiguity hangs in the air, stirring emotions among viewers, and allowing one to decipher how they truly feel about the fairness of life.

Capturing the broad strokes of life as a young woman, Takahata and his co-writer Riko Sakaguchi give themselves the opportunity to cover the defining moments of youth as they happen — satirizing some, and magnifying others. Princess’ first crush comes at the hands of a handsome bowl carver named Sutemaru, and soon after, the girl quickly transforms into a lonely young noblewoman. Subject to the strict social norms of feudal Japan, Kaguya (who receives this formal name from a paid advisor) must be poised and dignified at all times — these words having long been used by men to keep their wives and daughters quietly docile. Miyatsuko apologizes constantly for his daughter’s errant “disobedience,” and through the Princess’ sparkling eyes, this is presented as more than a father making amends for his farm-raised daughter; this is a blatant allegory for countless fathers oppressing their intelligent daughters.

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Watching his daughter blossom into a viable young wife (“blossom” here is the polite way to refer to menstruation), the bamboo cutter quickly works to marry off the young Princess into a life of servile nobility. Again, this restrictive and overbearing practice is shown to be a historical constant, and unlike many other children’s fairytales, it’s not limited to one girl and her evil step-mother or step-father. Courting rituals are exposed for the hilarious shambles they were, and still mostly are, as is the bravado of the young men vying for Kaguya’s attention. The inane babble that these men think this beautiful (reputedly, as no one has even seen her) girl wants to hear is shown to be as reductive and meaningless as it truly is, yet the sharp-tongued and intelligent Kaguya refuses to fall into any narrative fallacies. As in many Studio Ghibli films before it, the male director is speaking directly to his male audience, pleading with them to treat the women in their lives with the respect and equality they deserve.

Representing the triumphant and staunchly feminist end to the spectacular season of thrilling, beautiful and altogether life-affirming Studio Ghibli series, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya ends with a bittersweet (and for the purposes of this column, symbolically relevant) ascent into a spiritual world of peace. Like Takahata waving goodbye to more than two decades of work at his beloved Studio Ghibli, I cannot think of a more thoroughly beautiful end to this illuminating marathon.

Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinephile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.

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