Takahata Isao, the 78 year-old “other” of Studio Ghibli’s two old lions, is never going to be as well known as his good friend Miyazaki Hayao. His movies are never going to sell as many tickets in Japan, and may never even see a theatrical release in the West. If indeed Kaguya-hime no Monogatari is his last film, as seems very likely, he’s rarely if ever going to be mentioned when the conversation turns to the greatest animation directors of our time. But he should be, and Kaguya-hime is a wonderful way to put the exclamation point on the argument his small but superb catalogue makes to that effect.
As is my usual habit I’ll save most of the detail for when I see a subtitled version of Kaguya-hime and do a longer post based on that. But I can say this much – this is a beautiful, powerful film that moved me very deeply. It’s always an interesting status check for me when I see an anime film in raw form, and indeed I did find that – much to my satisfaction – I’m understanding more of the dialogue now than ever before (though a pause button would surely come in handy). But this is such a timeless and elemental story that the feelings largely transcend linguistic barriers, and I suspect even a viewer with no Japanese skills would have understood the gist of the story.
Takahata hasn’t made many films – this is only his fifth as a Director for Ghibli in 27 years – but the ones he’s made have counted. I still consider Grave of the Fireflies one of the saddest and most profound films in any language or medium (Roger Ebert called it the greatest anti-war film ever made) and I have a special soft spot for My Neighbors the Yamadas (which was a rare commercial failure for Ghibli). Takahata’s style both in terms of visuals and storytelling is as different from Miyazaki’s as night and day, though they’ve worked together on many film and TV projects – Takahata is a much more spare and elegant filmmaker, and if you’ve seen the previews for Kaguya-hime you know that it’s pretty much an impressionistic work, choosing shading and contrast over detail and a rainbow of colors. But don’t let that fool you – the detail is wonderful and the animation top cailber, and this is one of the most striking and beautiful anime in many years.
Some of you may be familiar with “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, the 10th-Century Japanese folk tale on which this movie is based (every Japanese person old enough to read certainly is). I certainly knew going in that this was going to be an emotional story, but I confess I was a bit put off by the woman sitting next to be who was, no exaggeration, quite audibly crying for about 110 of the 137-minute running time. But for the last 15 minutes of the film, I was wrecked – this makes twice now Takahata has completely reduced me to helpless tears, though the themes could hardly be more different. I hate to keep harping on mono no aware but it’s so deeply entrenched in the Japanese storytelling tradition, and it imbues every pore of the “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. And Takahata does a magnificent job capturing the emotion of the story on film with his understated, direct style – this feelings at work here are incredibly elemental and universal. There’s no simpler or more powerful story than that of the joy opening your heart to love can bring, and the pain which accompanies the inevitable parting that comes with every loving relationship in the end.
For my money Kaguya-hime no Monogatari is certainly the best anime film of 2013, which of course also means it’s the best Ghibli film of the year. That’s not a knock on Kaze no Tachinu, but a reflection of how beautiful and profound this movie is. My strong emotional reaction to the films closing moments was no doubt enhanced by the sense that it very much represents the end of an era – Miyazaki has announced that Kaze no Tachinu was his final film, and Takahata-sensei is 78 years old. If indeed these are the capstones to their careers I think they’re good ones – but more than that, anime fans and lovers of great cinema should feel very grateful to have lived in a time when two such geniuses were sharing their vision. Other visionaries are already making their mark on the anime world, but Takahata and Miyazaki are unique and irreplaceable figures, and we’re not likely to see their like again.