This is the anime swansong of Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, who has never acquired the international renown enjoyed by his more prolific partner, Hayao Miyazaki. ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’ probably won’t change that. It’s a delicate, muted film, steeped in Japanese folklore and a tad too odd for the mainstream.
It’s based on an age-old tale of a Thumbelina-like mythical human who is raised by peasants, blossoms into a beautiful princess and moves to the imperial court. Despite this mythological source material, the film doesn’t do zany magical creatures and bravura fantasy set pieces of the kind seen in Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited Away’. Instead, it plays out as a wistful, slow-burning romance, underscored with a streak of social satire and animated in exquisitely subtle pastels and watercolours. Drama only erupts in a midway dream scene, which ranks among the most startling sequences in the Ghibli catalogue. Takahata stays faithful to the idiosyncrasies of the folk tale, and the story’s longueurs may alienate kids.
Notwithstanding the fairytale set-up, this is not exactly a children’s film. ‘Kaguya’ demands patience and open-mindedness. In return, it offers an achingly nostalgic meditation on what it means to love, age and depart from this world with dignity. A fitting farewell.