Isao Takahata’s last film, based on ancient Japanese folklore, looks absolutely exquisite. The hand-drawn animation style exemplifies the natural beauty Studio Ghibli is so concerned with. The watercolour palette plays beautifully into how the film addresses the wonder of simple life and creation. Like Takahata’s last film, made so many years earlier, the film revels in negative space, the white vacuum in place of regular cel-shaded backgrounds demanding all attention be focused on the principal characters, enveloping the viewer directly into their worlds and forcing the audience into their experience of their world directly. The sketch style of animation, almost like a wisp of incomplete detail, makes the film flow in the moment and centres everything in the present.
The story being pulled directly from folklore sees that some of Takahata’s skill in brutally realistic and powerful characterisations is stymied, but he landed the ending with its complex range of emotions. The titular character (characters really, the bamboo cutter being titular in the original folk story the film is based on) have nuanced and well-executed character development over time. Takahata rides the line between cynicism and realistic recognition of human behaviour well. The lengthy suitor segment of the film is a scathing, cynical look at gender relations, an ugly, dehumanising event that even Kaguya’s sense of mischief can’t completely undercut.
The first act of the film is so blissful, and the novelty of the artstyle so overwhelming, that you feel as nostalgic for it later on as Kaguya does herself. That finite time should be spent on living life to the fullest isn’t revelatory, but told as humanised myth here, it works well. What’s more interesting is how the film addresses acceptance and futility in life. Kaguya finding her past literally inaccessible, making compromise after compromise, eventually reaching her end and trying to hold on to enough memory and mindfulness to validate her time on Earth as having some meaning, that is more potent material. The suddenness of that ending reflects the pacing of the original myth, but also works well as reinforcement of the idea of how fleeting life is. The happy music during that ending was upsetting; my emotions were a lot more complicated than the cheer the music was trying to communicate.
It’s a stunningly gorgeous film, and while not as subtle or powerful as some of Takahata’s other work, still one of the stronger Ghibli offerings. Four frogs, and a bamboo tree.