‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’ Review: A Beautiful Fairy Tale Far Beyond Simply Modern Reinvention


When Hayao Miyazaki announced that he would be retiring following the release of The Wind Rises, Studio Ghibli’s other master and co-founder, the great Isao Takahata had also stated that he also planned to direct a final film for the studio. With Takahata’s death in 2018, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya would also prove to be his final film as a director, but among the many things that it is, it is both his most beautiful looking film and also his most heartbreaking since Grave of the Fireflies. It is a beautiful film crafted with such love, for its reinvention of an ancient folktale feels so purely dreamlike for every moment it is beautifully contemplative, as a moment for Isao Takahata to reflect upon his career. With the reaffirming of the classic folktale’s long-lasting legacy, Takahata has also created what truly is also his most breathtaking work.

Based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, this new reinvention of the 10th century folktale builds its world from the minimalistic hand-drawn animation as it places you within the frame of mind of the titular Princess Kaguya as she grows up. She is found inside of a glowing bamboo shoot by the bamboo cutter, who raises her together with his wife. These simple watercolour drawings give the film the appearance of classic Japanese scrolls but watching Kaguya growing up as the colours become all the more vibrant only paints a more poignant picture of her coming of age. This film is without doubt Takahata at his most expressive, with all the fine details creating a new look for the medium as it reaffirms the long legacy of its origins.

While it was known that Takahata did not draw his works, the stunning amount of detail in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya showcases Takahata’s talents for seeing greater potential as he experimented with the medium. Much like his previous film, My Neighbors the Yamadas, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is animated via watercolours – giving the film a distinctive look from the “anime” appearance of many of Miyazaki’s works. But there’s also something all the more beautiful from how Takahata emphasizes the potential of the medium in order to create a greater psychological resonance, whether it be through a scene of running through a dark forest or Kaguya exploring Japan’s capital. It helps capture how overwhelmed she is, and thus it brings us closer to Kaguya herself.

Many interpretations of Princess Kaguya have depicted the titular character as a femme fatale of sorts, but Isao Takahata frames her struggle as being a victim of circumstance. The more we watch her grow, remaining a forever enthralling presence to the people around her, she becomes a very relatable character – akin to one of Miyazaki’s younger protagonists. You feel her joys, her sorrows, but also her willingness to defy the norms set by the traditionalist ruling she is made to live within. As the whole world continues revolving around her, you feel how trapped she is by expectations, but also her growing resilience. What Takahata brings to the screen through Kaguya is one of the studio’s most admirable protagonists, but also one of their most fully realized worlds as we come to see Japan through her eyes.

Even as Takahata creates the look of an ancient Japanese scroll through the film’s animation style, it still retains a great resonance that can be felt as modern audiences come to see this tale for themselves for the first time. Takahata challenges traditional societal roles that have been implemented within the era, but they still resonate with today’s world – as we feel Kaguya’s imprisonment as imposed by the fundamentalist ruling within which she lives as a part of. This context also adds to the greater tragedy of Princess Kaguya, because of how we can feel her wanting to grow in order to become her own person yet circumstances continually push her towards something that restricts her from doing exactly that. No matter how much we understand it as being an act of love, it only adds more to Kaguya’s suffering, leading to an inescapable tragedy. This is expected from Isao Takahata, but the fairy tale approach to these issues only adds to the emotional impact, especially from the more intimate moments which he has only been perfecting through his career.  

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya isn’t a film that simply reinvents an ages old folktale for modern audiences, but it is also one of the most beautifully crafted and intensely heartbreaking animated films ever made. It’s a film whose look also evokes the eyes of a child, which perfectly represents the growth of the titular Princess Kaguya, even as you feel the love for her from those who helped her become the person she is – yet never whom she wanted to be. This isn’t only one of the best animated films of recent memory, but it also deserves a spot among the very best films ever to have been made about growing up, and all the challenges that come forth. A truly stunning work from beginning to end, it is also the perfect conclusion for the career of one of animation’s greatest innovators, affirming the enduring legacy of the great Isao Takahata.

Watch the trailer right here.

All images via GKIDS.

Directed by Isao Takahata
Screenplay by Isao Takahata, Riko Sakaguchi, based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter
Produced by Yoshiaki Nishimura
Starring Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii, Nobuko Miyamoto (Japanese version)
Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Darren Criss, Mary Steenburgen, Lucy Liu, Hynden Walch, George Segal, James Marsden, Oliver Platt, Daniel Dae Kim, Dean Cain, Beau Bridges, John Cho (GKIDS dub)
Release Date: November 23, 2013
Running Time: 137 minutes