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‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’: Animation simple in its sophistication

By Mary Houlihan/For Sun-Times Media

For his first film in 15 years, Japanese animation master Isao Takahata draws inspiration from a 10th-century folk tale about a young woman who magically comes to Earth from the moon. Eight years in the making at Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” sits easily alongside other popular examples of the genre.

The 79-year-old Takahata is a perfectionist, and artistically he lets nothing fall by the wayside. The fluid, hand-drawn animation has the quality of Japanese handpainted scrolls. The pastel watercolors and line drawings are enhanced with splashes of more vibrant hues — a flitting bluebird, brilliant diaphanous kimonos, luminous cherry trees in full bloom.

(The Gene Siskel Film Center is screening “Princess Kaguya” in two versions: one with English subtitles and the other featuring the voices of Chloe Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen and others. I screened this version, and the actors do a nice job with the carefully translated material. That said, it was disconcerting to hear English spoken by characters based deep in ancient Japanese traditions.)

Takahata clings closer to reality (as in his somber World War II story “Grave of the Fireflies”) than his colleague Hayao Miyazaki, whose work is more surreal. So the otherworldly story of Princess Kaguya is a bit of a surprise coming from Takahata.

The film begins as a childless bamboo cutter working in the woods discovers a shaft of light emanating from a bamboo shoot. Inside rests a sweet, doll-like creature that he takes home to his wife. The lovely image quickly morphs into a human baby, a change that he and his doting wife only momentarily question before adopting her as their own. They name her Princess, and magical things happen as the new mother well into middle age discovers she can breast feed, while the baby grows at a surprisingly fast rate.

Neighbor boys teasingly nickname her L’il Bamboo. She happily gambols about with the boys in the fields and forests. Her content, pastoral life seems complete until one day her father discovers another shaft of light, which holds a cache of gold. It is then he comes up with the misguided notion to move to a palace in the city where his daughter can be raised as an aristocrat.

Princess is not at all happy with the change as her teacher attempts to tame her free spirit in order to attract suitors. When five pompous noblemen show up, Princess sends them on impossible missions to prove they are worthy. In reality, she just wants them out of the way.

The final half of the story has much to say about a woman’s role in a male-dominated society. As Princess battles with her sense of duty to her parents, her independent side prods her to revolt. This clash brings about in her a palpable sadness that turns the story into one of sorrow, loss and eternal yearning.

Takahata tackles the big themes of life with this story that has its occasional thin moments and is stretched into an overly long film. Younger children raised on a Disney diet of sight gags and happy endings may not be so enthralled with this precise, graceful and philosophical storytelling.

But in the end, it’s the beautiful and breathtaking animation that gives “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” a luster that is both simple and sophisticated. Once again the visionary Takahata and Studio Ghibli prove that great animation is not just for kids, but can be universal in its reach.

[s3r star=3/4]

GKids presents a film written and directed by Isao Takahata. Shown both in a dubbed version and in Japanese with English subtitles. Running time: 137 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements, some violent action and partial nudity). Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. A documentary on the making of the film, “Isao Takahata and His Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” shows Dec. 6, 13, 27 and 28 at the Film Center.