Slow on the draw: Takahata Isao’s long road to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Studio Ghibli co-founder Takahata Isao had a reputation as an implacable perfectionist and with its rare blend of raw line-drawings and watercolours, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, his first movie in 14 years, took eight years and a lot of company patience to make.

— In memory of Takaha Isao, 29 October 1935–5 April 2018.

Nick Bradshaw

from our April 2015 issue

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The plan was to release The Tale of the Princess Kaguya in Japan on the same day as The Wind Rises, 25 years after the double-bill of Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies and Miyazaki Hayao’s My Neighbour Totoro put their fledgling Studio Ghibli on the map.

This time Takahata had had a five-year head start, but still missed their summer 2013 release date, and was head-down at work in Ghibli’s custom-established Studio 7 when the TV showed Miyazaki broadcasting his retirement. “Announcing it to the press is what’s weird,” Takahata mutters in a useful documentary tracking Kaguya’s tortuous making. Miyazaki had invited him to share his press-conference stage, but he’d declined.

Isao Takahata

Isao Takahata
Credit: Getty Images

“By nature he is a real slugabed sloth… the descendant of some giant sloth that once crawled the plains of earth in the Pliocene era,” says Miyazaki of his friend, colleague and inspiration Paku-san in Starting Point, the first volume of Miyazaki’s collected writings and interviews. (Why ‘Paku-san’? “The story is that every day he would arrive just barely on time, drinking tap water and wolfing down bread. He sounded like this: paku, paku.”) “With Paku-san,” he adds, “you can be guaranteed that at several points in the production he will begin yelling, ‘I can’t possibly make this film!’”

Takahata himself, in the epilogue to Starting Point, writes: “Miya-san has always aggressively tried to assume responsibility for various things, but at some unknown point I – the giant sloth – began to sneakily avoid responsibility. And since Miya-san is responsible for Studio Ghibli, whenever I do any work I have tended to create a great deal of trouble for him by, among other things, causing delays in production schedules.”

And not only for Miyazaki. Suzuki Toshio, Ghibli’s third founding musketeer, declined to produce the film because he couldn’t give Takahata the requisite 24/7 attention – during this period he produced Tales from Earthsea (2006), Ponyo (2008), Arrietty (2010), From up on Poppy Hill (2011) and The Wind Rises (2013). Instead it fell on young first-time producer Nishimura Yoshiaki – not unfairly, as he’d spent 18 months back in 2005-06 trying to motivate a reluctant Takahata to undertake the project. “It’s that simple: I really want to see Isao Takahata’s last movie,” he says in the making-of doc. Five years later, they had 30 minutes of storyboard.

 

Cradle to the grave

The irony is that The Tale of the Princess Kaguya itself is a lamentation for time’s hasty passage – animated in a fleet brushstroke style that exudes spontaneity and swiftness. It’s a radical look – at least for studio-produced feature animation – that harks back to Japanese woodblock and scroll art, here used to animate Takahata’s version of Japan’s oldest-recorded folk tale, which dates back at least a millennium.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

More commonly titled The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, it concerns the eponymous farmer’s discovery inside a luminous bamboo shoot of a tiny girl whom he and his wife raise as their daughter, with financial assistance provided by nuggets of gold he finds in further shoots of bamboo; taking these as a sign, they name her Princess Kaguya, meaning ‘shining light’. Spurred, as she grows up, by her great and refined beauty, a series of increasingly noble admirers come with fanciful tributes to solicit her as their bride, but she sends them all away on impossible errands, only to find herself rueing her own foreshortened time on earth.

Takahata has equivocated about whether to call this his last film. (“If I still have the physical stamina, will, and mental powers left in me, and there are people who will invest in it, a producer who will manage it all, and if I am blessed with the kind of collaborators I had on this project, I would like to make another film,” he told Bill Desowitz for Indiewire. “But this would require a miracle, so when I consider whether it is possible or impossible, I think it is more likely to be impossible.”)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Still, as with The Wind Rises there’s certainly a valedictory air to it, a nostalgic genius for reincarnating the moments that, in Miyazaki’s words, make “this life worth living”. The film’s first act exalts in a pastoralism, and the alignment of nature and high-spirited youth, the raw ingredients of so many Ghibli movies, as Kaguya grows up hymning “birds, bugs, beasts, grass, trees, flowers”, relishing the taste of melons and forest fruits, the company of animals and her peasant friends, who snub her father’s airs and nickname her ‘L’il Bamboo’.

This is what Miyazaki calls Takahata’s everyday-life animation, a move away from the fantasy and fabular heroism of most cartoons – including Takahata’s 1968 feature debut The Little Norse Prince (aka Horus, Prince of the Sun), on which Miyazaki worked, and indeed most of Miyazaki’s own movies – towards a realism of setting and narrative, begun with Heidi, Girl of the Alps, the 1974 TV series on which the pair collaborated.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The observational precision and exuberance with which Kaguya’s first baby rolls and steps are animated fully bear out Takahata’s claims for his experimental style, and for building his production around key singular talents. Oga Kazuo’s backgrounds are synonymous with Studio Ghibli productions, but he’d not art-directed for the studio since Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke in 1997; here, extending the idea of incomplete, piecemeal backgrounds begun in Takahata’s last feature, the newspaper comic strip-adapted My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999), he composes in limpid watercolours and diaphanous backgrounds that fade off into a kind of cartoon negative space, emphasising (in this case) the realism of the foreground actions, and their occasional outbursts of expressionism.

The younger Tanabe Osamu, who has worked on all of Takahata’s Ghibli animation, provides the character designs, his rough line-drawings traced over with rare lightness by the animators without any clean-up stage. “I’ve believed this for 50 years: when you’re drawing fast there’s passion,” Takahata explains. “With a carefully finished product that passion gets lost.”

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Kaguya’s delay also meant Takahata was able to score the services of Miyazaki’s perennial composer Joe Hisaishi, first brought into the fold by Takahata as producer on Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), the film whose success launched Studio Ghibli.

The twist in this first act is that Kaguya grows up inhumanly fast – though her blink-and-she’s-sprouted-again transformations may strike a familiar note for any watching parents. The movie telescopes time like Only Yesterday (1991), Takahata’s adaptation of Okamoto Hotaru and Tone Yuko’s nostalgic manga, whose memories of a girl’s childhood in 1966 Tokyo are refracted in the movie through the belated soul-searching of her rather Rohmeresque, unassertive 27-year-old self on a farming holiday in the countryside.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Which is to say that Princess Kaguya soon leaves behind the bucolic comradeship of Panda! Go Panda! (1972), Goshu, the Cellist (1982) and Pom Poko (1994), Takahata’s fables of nature seeking accommodation with man, for another Ghibli commonplace: the follies of human greed and aggrandisement. The newly enriched, socially aspirational cutter removes his family from the fields to a dedicated palace where he lavishes his princess with robes, and lessons in the arts and graces of Japanese medieval ladyhood at the hands of the humourless Lady Sagami. (“A lady does not sweat,” Sagami pronounces, struggling to impose the plucking custom of hikimayu on Kaguya’s eyebrows, as well as the black-dyeing of her teeth through the practice of ohaguro.)

But it’s Kaguya’s free spirit that’s most in contention here: the bamboo cutter wants none of her old “hillbilly” friends at her coming-of-age party, designed to show her off to “name guests”. And while the style with which she dispatches her five noble suitors to find the impossible objects to which they have compared her will tickle feminist sensibilities, faintly echoing the spunkiness we love in Miyazaki’s heroines, it remains the circumscribed manoeuvre of a girl with only the power of refusal. Never has a Ghibli film strayed so far into the social pessimism of a Mizoguchi Kenji tragedy.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

 

Build it up, knock it down

Entertainingly rendered as these episodes dutifully lifted from the original tale are, their minor variations barely develop Kaguya’s story. On the other hand, Kaguya’s obduracy does illuminate a certain anarchic, anti-institutional streak in Takahata’s work. The tragedy in Grave of the Fireflies, about a brother and sister orphaned by the firebombing of Tokyo in the last months of World War II, is not just that war severs social ties, but that no one is prepared to build the bridges that would save the two children’s lives – and that Seita, the brother, falls for the short-lived glee of playing outlaw.

In Studio Ghibli, Takahata helped build perhaps the world’s greatest foundation for the art of cel animation – only to tire of the technique and cast about for something different. “The hard and fast rules of Ghibli are no use to him,” comments Suzuki at the start of Kaguya’s making-of doc, explaining how the recondite production requirements of the whimsical, cartoon-haiku style of My Neighbours the Yamadas nearly ruined the studio’s system, as well as forsaking its visual brand.

“You’re going to break things again, aren’t you?” another confidante asks Takahata as he lumbers closer to starting a movie that would insist on massive amounts of trial and error while making corrections that much harder (watercolours, for instance, are less amenable to retouching than traditional acrylics). Late in the production someone proposes that a tight new schedule will preclude any further “fiddling”. “We can always fiddle,” replies Takahata.

Gallery: Takahata Isao’s filmography in pictures

Nor was this news to anyone; years after the financial failure of his debut, Takahata’s name was cursed by its producers. With The Little Norse Prince, wrote Miyazaki in Starting Point, “Paku-san really proved that animation has the power to depict the inner mind of humans in depth. However, he also showed how risky and scary it was for a corporation to make him the director of a feature-length film. A production that was supposed to take one year was delayed once, then delayed again – by the time it was finally completed I had gotten married, had my first son, and my son had already celebrated his first birthday.” (Happily, Kaguya was underwritten by Nippon Television Network at the behest of its late chair Ujiie Seiichiro, a Takahata fan, to the tune of some five billion yen, or $40 million.) If Takahata is a sloth, then, he’s one who has sympathies with the happy-go-lucky, shapeshifting tanuki (raccoon dogs) of his wonderful conservationist fantasy Pom Poko, the film you’d get if you crossed The Wombles with Watership Down, and a story about metamorphosis that found him mixing multiple styles of animation.

For her part, when she’s not sending away her suitors Kaguya knuckles down to the rules of the game in her gilded cage; her girlish defiance of Sagami’s ladyship drill subsides, she shows herself preternaturally capable of the appropriate comportment, her koto playing is clearly sublime and she hides her emotional hand. As in The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s greatest breach with the hero’s-journey standard, Kaguya becomes a portrait of a protagonist caught in time’s tide, curtailed in her desires, defeatist in her inability to approach happiness.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Also like Jiro in The Wind Rises, Kaguya elopes in her dreams. Once, pent up during her coming-of-age ceremony, she tears out of her tent on her way back to her old village, the backgrounds falling away in her rush, Tanabe’s pencil strokes cutting to the quick, only to find the fields in winter, used and fallow, her friends departed.

Another time – and here we have reached the film’s final act – she flies in a rhapsodic extramarital embrace over the land and sea with Sutemaru, the peasant farmer-boy of her heart. Such flights of fancy are a minor Takahata motif: girls find their bodies soaring with their spirits in 1979’s Anne of Green Gables (another of Takahata’s ‘World Masterpiece Theatre’ series of TV adaptations) and Only Yesterday, while in Yamadas marriage is imagined as a metaphysical bobsleigh ride which takes to the air, collecting one baby from a floating peach and another from a bamboo cane.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

It’s a testament to Takahata and his team’s painstaking artistry that all this time we’ve been layering human psychology on an enigma plucked from the long grass. This will come as a spoiler only for those, like me, previously unfamiliar with the sci-fi element of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, but it transpires that Kaguya was not of this earth and soon must take her leave; her tribe come for her in the night like Buddhist bounty hunters or the spellbound feline press gang of Ghibli’s The Cat Returns (2002), eerily beatific envoys from lands without conflict, passion – or, in this case, memory, with Kaguya another in the movies’ line of alien emissaries come to sample human drama. Helped by Nikaido Kazumi’s plaintive closing song, she leaves clinging to nostalgia and hope. “People will still be wondering exactly what’s going on” here, predicts Takahata – but that’s life too.

  • Sight & Sound: the April 2015 issue

    Sight & Sound: the April 2015 issue

    Remake/remodel: 50 of the most intriguing director’s cuts and alternative versions. Plus Agnès Varda, Věra Chytilová, Takahata Isao, Adam...

More from this issue

Find out more

Access the digital edition

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.