Let's call it what it is - a devastating one-two punch that marks both the actual end of Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli and the official retirement of its master craftsmen, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. And though Mr. Miyazaki remains the most acclaimed of the pair, and his swan song The Wind Rises is a moving, perfect summation of his career and aesthetics, it's hard not think that Mr. Takahata's Tale of the Princess Kaguya - 15 years in the conception and eight years in the making - is the actual masterpiece of the two.
A sweeping zen epic of simple yet exquisitely detailed hand-crafted animation, this take on a traditional Japanese fairy tale turns what seem to be its apparent weaknesses into its greatest strengths, requiring the viewer more attuned to a fuller, more precise type of animation to adjust its expectations as the film moves on at a stately, dreamlike pace. More painterly and evocative than properly descriptive, yet impeccably structured and narratively flawless, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya unfolds as quietly as a budding flower, like the beautiful little baby that sprouts fully-formed from a bamboo stalk in a forest and is taken in by a bamboo-cutter and his wife, only to start growing into a young girl at alarming speed.
The film's delicate visuals, switching almost imperceptibly between colourful impressionism and dark expressionism, lull you gently into the essence of the universal lessons of its fairy tale narrative about the pursuit of truth and happiness. The inexorability of the circle of life is touchingly rendered as we watch Kaguya literally come of age and learn what it's like to be human, understanding that nobility is not something you buy but something you are born with regardless of your origins.
What makes its tale even more touching is the refusal of Mr. Takahata to whitewash any of the pain and any of the doubts that Kaguya feels throughout, and to reduce it all to the mere level of a fairy tale for kids. Instead, the director treats it as a classic, universal coming of age tale whose delicate stylings never hide the truth or the strength of the underlying emotions but rather bring them out into the open - something that you would be hard-pressed to do in any other visual form.
It's the fact that Mr. Takahata has made it as an animated feature that makes The Tale of the Princess Kaguya resonate in such a way: its disarming visual poetry, the quiet watercolour backgrounds and the hand-drawn characters unlock the viewer's emotions by appealing simultaneously to the wide-eyed child and to the thinking, feeling adult that co-exist inside him. To call it a melancholy masterpiece - even if its sprawling length can occasionally seem excessive or unnecessary - is faint praise indeed, even if it takes more than just one viewing to fully understand it.
KAGUYA-HIME NO MONOGATARI
Original Japanese voice cast: Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii, Nobuko Miyamoto, Atsuko Takahata, Tomoko Tabata, Shinosuke Tatekawa, Takaya Kamikawa, Hikaru Ijuin, Ryudo Uzaki, Shichinosuke Nakamura, Isao Hashizume, Yukiji Asaoka, Tatsuya Nakadai
Director Isao Takahata; animation director Kenichi Konishi; screenwriter Riko Sakaguchi; based on a story by Mr. Takahata and on the Japanese fairy tale «The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter»; cinematographer Keisuke Nakamura; composer Joe Hisaishi; art director Kazuo Oga; animation designer Tanabe Osamu; producers Seiichiro Ujiie, Koji Yoshino and Yoshiaki Nishimura; production companies Studio Ghibli, Nippon Television Network, Dentsu, Hakuhodo DY Media Partners, Walt Disney Japan, Mitsubishi Corporation, Toho Company and KDDI Corporation
Screened April 4th 2015, Lisbon