Famed perfectionist Isao Takahata returns with his first film in over a decade, which is a royalty epic not seen since the days of The Last Emperor and the like in the 80s and 90s. Takahata’s The Tale of The Princess Kaguya took nearly a decade to make (an arduous process talked about in some detail in Ghibli doco The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness), a painstaking process that permeates every frame of the wonderfully stripped back yet intricate visuals, but the same care hasn’t been given to what tries to be a deeply emotional experience.
It’s a shame, because for at least a bit of its runtime, Kaguya seems to be heading in the direction of its full emotional potential. The early scenes, chronicling the Thumbelina-like discovery of Kaguya by her bamboo cutter father before she rapidly grows into a young woman, have rendered the sweet sentimentality from the myth gorgeously. It’s deeply felt as Kaguya lives her short and simple yet idyllic childhood, and moves into the next phase of the story. Her father, believing he’s acting for his daughter’s happiness, takes a gift of gold bestowed on the family and builds her a palace to make her a ‘real’ princess.
By this time, about halfway through the film’s well drawn-out two hour and 17 minute runtime, it all starts to get lost in translation. Kaguya, whose father of course doesn’t realise that her happiness doesn’t lie in royal duties and grandeur, and not the way to show her love, is visited by a bunch of suitors and gets progressively more disheartened with her fate.
But in all of this, as characters are shuffled in and out of Kaguya’s life, searching for a portion of the fortune, Takahata forgets one integral element – her perspective. We are rarely privy to Kaguya’s thoughts and feelings on the whole affair. We know that she is unhappy with it, but beyond that, there is little to be seen, which makes for an uninvolving, eventually tedious watch.
Make no mistake, Kaguya on a craft level is a masterstroke, and at times hints at what it could been. It would undoubtedly be a striking and somewhat overwhelming experience in a cinema, the sheer beauty of the visuals enough to enthrall alone. A moment of escapism feels like the liberation from emotional reverence it years for. But just like Kaguya, whose stripping of the clothes that weigh her down lasts not long enough, the film is soon back to its constraints.