An animated interpretation of “Taketori monogatari,” the 10th-century Japanese tale of a damsel who came to Earth from the moon, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is a visionary tour de force, morphing from a childlike gambol into a sophisticated allegory on the folly of materialism and the evanescence of beauty. Inspired by Eastern brush painting, this ethereal new feature from 78-year-old helmer Isao Takahata takes hand-drawn animation to new heights of fluidity. Studio Ghibli’s second release of the year has struck B.O. gold, earning roughly $22.7 million to date; at 137 minutes, it’s a bit taxing for tykes, but should get glowing reviews from anime fans upon its slated U.S. bow this year through GKids.
Eight years in the making and with a budget of roughly $49 million, Takahata’s pet project actually dates back to 55 years ago, when he assisted helmer Tomu Uchida in an eventually aborted attempt to bring “Taketori monogatari” to the bigscreen. (Hailed as Japan’s oldest recorded narrative, the story has been adapted many times, notably in Kon Ichikawa’s live-action 1987 version, “Princess From the Moon.”) Liberated from the neorealism that is his trademark (“Grave of the Fireflies,” “Only Yesterday”), Takahata embraces fantasy and abstract symbolism here to wondrous effect. Viewers used to Hollywood toons packed with snappy setpieces and crowd-pleasing gags may be underwhelmed by the film’s graceful rhythms and reserved storytelling, but that won’t keep them from marveling at the sheer virtuosity of its artwork: “Kaguya” means “shining” in Japanese, and fittingly, rich contrasts of light and darkness define every scene.
Bamboo cutter Okina (literally, “old fella”), voiced by Takeo Chii, chances upon a royal-robed nymph, as dainty as Thumbelina, inside a bamboo stalk. Once he brings her home, she swells into a human-sized infant, and Okina’s wife, Ona (“woman”), voiced by Nobuko Miyamoto, miraculously begins nursing her.
Okina calls his child (Aki Asakura) “Princess,” but other tykes call her Takenoko because of her exponential growth. Her childhood, full of rough-and-tumble activity in a pastoral world, recalls the daffy slapstick and charming naivete of “Panda! Go Panda!,” the 1972-73 series directed by Takahata and written by Hayao Miyazaki. The screenplay for “Kaguya,” co-written by Takahata and Rika Sakaguchi, also adds an original character, Sutemaru (Kengo Kora), a young hunter who becomes Takenoko’s love interest. The images here are drawn with simple, soft brushstrokes and painted in watery pastel colors; the veneration of nature, a hallmark of Studio Ghibli’s animation, is apparent in the picturesque flowers in bloom.
Then Okina discovers gold dust and exquisite silks in the bamboo forest, which he believes are Takenoko’s dowry from heaven. Convinced she’s intended for grander things, he and Ona take the girl to the capital, Kyoto, where they settle into a magnificent mansion and hire governess Sagami (Atsuko Takahata) to make Takenoko a lady. But she feels homesick and stifled by this opulent new lifestyle, her plight harking back to the country-city dichotomy of the 1974 TV anime series “Heidi, Girl of the Alps,” which Takahata and Miyazaki developed together. Takenoko’s defiance of Sagami’s stuffy airs and warped cosmetic practices not only parodies the slavish pursuit of artificial beauty, but also questions the concept of artifice itself.
Okina presents his daughter to influential courtier Inbe no Akita (Tatekawa Shinosuke), who names her “Kaguya,” for the luminous aura she radiates. As he spreads word of her peerless beauty, she attracts swarms of suitors, including the Mikado, or Emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura II), five of whom she orders to perform Herculean tasks. The film captures the spirit of the tale’s most famous episode, turning the suitors’ gambits into brilliant spectacles and scintillating flights of fantasy, all while satirizing the materialism and possessiveness that too often pass for love. Just as the suitors’ motives prove questionable, so their actions yield consequences that progressively darken the tone of the yarn. Even Kaguya’s relationship with Sutemaru, which starts off as a buoyant, youthful romance, culminates in a melancholy twist that overturns fairy-tale expectations.
Although Takahata has stated that he wanted to explore crime and punishment in his version of the legend, the film never dwells on how Kaguya came to Earth, or why; instead, the story spans the dramatic stages of a woman’s growth, from carefree moppet to rebellious teenager and finally to sensuous maiden. Kazuo Oga’s art direction runs the gamut in reflecting these phases, with a wide array of gorgeous kimonos and illustration styles. While the protagonist’s beauty is the sine qua non of the story, visualizing it through animation presents a challenge — one the filmmakers meet with a versatility that can make Kaguya look like a girl-next-door type one moment and a figure of regal composure the next.
The only shortcoming of this characterization lies in Kaguya’s relationship with her adopted parents, which doesn’t convey enough genuine affection; nor is her disdain for wealth or suitors given enough of a foundation. Okina, whose vanity could have been explored in greater depth, remains a buffoon.
Tech credits are out of this world. The animation sports a two-dimensional look reminiscent of watercolors, and yet movements flow with exceptional grace; even shots of landscapes and objects sometimes appear to unfold like a scroll. Illustrations of period architecture and props are rendered with diaphanous subtlety, as when Kaguya darts toward the moon, or in the film’s transporting ending, an aesthetic fusion equally inspired by Dun Huang murals and hippie music. Joe Hisaishi’s earthy, folk-inflected score eschews his usual orchestral heaviness.