Once upon a time in feudal Japan, a humble bamboo cutter (voiced in the English dub by James Caan) cuts a tree to find a tiny, glowing, fairy princess inside! He brings her home to his wife (Mary Steenburgen) and to their amazement the princess grows magically from infant to toddler in the blink of an eye. So the bamboo cutter and his wife raise the child as their own. In time she matures into a beautiful girl who comes to be known as Kaguya (Chloë Grace Moretz). A happy, free-spirited girl who loves living in the country among flowers, trees and animals and playing with her young friends, in particular kindly Sutemaru (Glee's Darren Criss). Then one day the bamboo cutter finds another magical tree bearing gifts. This time, a pile of gold and streams of fine silken kimonos. To the old man's way of thinking this is a sign that Heaven wants him to take Kaguya to the city to lead the life of a true princess: cultured, refined and courted by the most eligible royal suitors in the land.
But is that necessarily what Kaguya wants? While the Oscar for Best Animated Film of 2014 went to Big Hero 6, an elaborate anime pastiche from Disney, many felt the worthier contender was a real Japanese animation with a moral message ironically not far removed from those Disney fairy tales of the past. Often a more experimental stylist than Studio Ghibli colleague Hayao Miyazaki, veteran animator Isao Takahata here delivers one of the most eloquent, beautiful and lyrical films produced by Japan's most famous anime studio. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is based on a folk tale widely known throughout Japan and previously adapted as the live action Princess from the Moon (1987), an unlikely science fiction extravaganza from Kon Ichikawa starring Toshirô Mifune as the bamboo cutter.
Spinning a deceptively simple story, Takahata fashions a film that although distinctly Japanese in style, structurally evokes the naturalism of Disney's Bambi (1942). He devotes the first third entirely to Kaguya learning how to interact with her environment. Under Sutemaru's patient tutelage she learns how to carve wood and live off the land. A love of nature infuses the entire film as Takahata takes time to convey the simple joys of watching flowers bloom, animals move or savouring a juicy slice of melon. Through the artistry of Ghibli's gifted animators a story almost totally free of conventional drama proves wholly compelling from start to finish. What follows after the first act is a meditation on the true nature of happiness. Kaguya's well-intentioned yet foolish father gets carried away with the idea of raising a 'princess.' He comes to believe his duty is to surround Kaguya in finery and prosperity yet in doing so turns his bright, boisterous daughter into a bird in a gilded cage. At first, like any little girl, Kaguya delights in her big house and fancy clothes while stern tutor Lady Sagami (Lucy Liu) struggles to mould her into a proper young lady.
Takahata tweaks the traditional tale into the story of a spirited iconoclast in a society infamous for quashing individualism. In a break from convention that is genuinely amusing, Kaguya masters the finer points of courtly etiquette (music, calligraphy, behaviour) both easily and rapidly yet to the consternation of Lady Sagami chooses to remain a defiant free spirit. She refuses to pluck her eyebrows, blacken her teeth, refrain from laughter or do any of those things that reflect 'proper' behaviour for a Japanese princess. With skill and a subtlety that keeps Kaguya from becoming as an anachronistic as the feisty feminist heroines of Disney's films of the Nineties, Takahata questions the role of women in feudal Japan as decorative objects forced to conform to fantasies projected by men, a notion that still lingers today. Inevitably given the pressures of society and family Kaguya is forced to compromise yet grows increasingly disenchanted with the falseness of courtly life and, more troublingly, comes to despise herself as a 'fake.'
Unwilling to marry Kaguya sets five arrogant suitors: Prince Ishitsukuri (James Marsden), Lord Minister Abe (Oliver Platt), Great Counselor Otomo (Lost's Daniel Dae Kim), Prince Kuramochi (Beau Bridges) and Counselor Isonokami (John Cho) the impossible task of retrieving the fabled treasures to which they compare her beauty. Unlike Ichikawa's film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya rather ingeniously balances this traditionally sluggish segment of the fairy tale between comedy. Kaguya deftly outwits their attempts to fool her with manufactured trinkets yet still endures heartbreak when Ishitsukuri's declaration of true love rings false. Takahata wisely keeps Kaguya as the focal point as she tries to reconnect with nature yet because of her noble birth finds life's simple pleasures out of reach.
An all star cast headline an English dub of high quality supervised by respected producer-director Frank Marshall. Purists will want to check out the original Japanese version first where Aki Asakura is quite excellent as Kaguya. On a visual level the film serves up spellbinding, sumptuous images that evoke old storybooks and folk art. Takahata uses subtle shifts in colour and technique to devastating emotional effect and delivers a flying sequence as magical as the best Miyazaki only with an achingly sad punchline. The film climaxes with a spectacular and surreal set-piece laced with a poetic melancholy though, to Takahata's credit, he once again alters the traditional finale so Kaguya delivers a spirited defense of the flawed yet wondrous earthly life.