A magnificent cherry tree in bloom, the ultimate Japanese symbol for mortality, exudes a striking emotional resonance in The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, an adaptation of a Japanese fable by Studio Ghibli cofounder Isao Takahata. The soft colors, graceful movements, and clean lines that depict the animated figures and their environments, and the frequent close-ups of beautiful flora and fauna, embody the ineffable beauty of life on Earth that is one of the film’s main themes. Meanwhile, the title character’s transformation from the giddy, near-perpetual motion of her childhood to the mournful stasis of adolescence is a potent illustration of its feminist critique of what is traditionally supposed to constitute a happy life for a girl.
When Kaguya appears to a bamboo cutter in the mountainside field where the man works, she pops out of a bamboo stalk as a fully formed little girl, small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. But when he takes her back home, she turns into an infant in the arms of his nurturing wife, then grows up—eerily quickly—under the couple’s loving care. A sweet and loving girl, she happily plays with the ragtag children of a woodworking family nearby, until her adopted father decides that country life isn’t good enough for her. (Her pragmatic, nurturing adoptive mother seems to have her doubts about the plan, but she goes along with what her husband wants.) When another magic bamboo stalk delivers a pile of gold, the bamboo cutter uses it to build a palace in the nearby city, then moves his family there so Kaguya can learn how to be a royal lady, hidden away in her chambers with nothing much to do but tuck away every last shred of enthusiasm or individuality as she waits for some stranger to come claim her as his “prize.”
The film pokes only gentle fun at the bamboo cutter as he tries to play the gentleman, bumping his tall hat on door lintels or kowtowing to the snobby gentleman who come to court his daughter. But it pulls no punches in revealing his princess fantasy as the prison it is for Kaguya, who pines for the freedom of her youth, the birds and bees and flowers and trees she sings of in her plaintively beautiful theme song, and the childhood friends she’s now forbidden to see, one of whom is also her soul mate. When a round of nobles vies for her, each trying to outdo the other with his flowery speech, she takes careful note of their language, repeating words, like “treasure,” that reveal the passive, symbolic role they expect her to play in their lives. The constraints imposed on her by that passivity are blown wide open when Kaguya runs pell-mell toward her beloved mountain or dances around the magnificent cherry tree. The animation in these scenes changes, too, the strong outlines that usually create detailed yet simplified representations of people and other living things melting into an impressionistic rush of pulsing black lines and bright dabs of color.
Kaguya’s first tragedy is that she must go along with her father’s wrongheaded plan, because she loves him and he loves her. Her second tragedy is that she’s ultimately unable to comply, a failure that causes her to be torn away from her parents and the everyday glories of life on Earth. But as sad as it is to imagine a parent enduring the physical death of a child, as the fable’s ending invites us to do, it’s sadder yet to think about the tragedy depicted by the rest of the film: the spiritual death we so often impose on our children in forcing them to conform to culturally accepted notions about the roles they’re meant to play. As Kaguya tells her father: “The happiness you wanted for me was hard to bear.”