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I got to see Isao Takahata's latest film on the big screen a week or so ago and wanted to get down some impressions before I forget.
On the surface, Kaguya Hime no Monogatari is a gorgeous film that carries on where My Neighbors The Yamadas left off, doing for ancient Japan what the previous movie did for modern Japan. But deep down, it's more of an enigma.
I've been immersed in Group Tac's Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi for weeks now, so it was inevitable for me to compare the two. This story has in fact been told not only in MNMB but elsewhere in movies and shorts. But the idea to make the movie isn't new. Takahata came up with the original idea for the film way back in the Toei Doga days, and in retrospect it does look like the kind of film that would not have been out of place beside Anju and Zushiomaru and Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon.
Kaguya Hime or The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter as it's alternately known is believed to be Japan's oldest story - it's even referenced in The Tale of Genji. It's known as "the ancestor of stories" in Japan. The story itself, like many folktales, is fantastical and obviously not realistic. Gisaburo Sugii's approach to the conundrums and non-sequiturs of Japan's folktales seemed to be to embrace them, not to try to bridge their logical gaps. The MNMB version of Kaguya Hime (watch), which is directed by Takao Kodama with animation by Masakazu Higuchi and art by Koji Abe, is a truly beautiful rendition of the story, but faithful to the bare-bones original and much more closely stylzed after scroll paintings.
Isao Takahata is a very different filmmaker. His entire ethos towards filmmaking is based on logic. Every element of his films is meticulously conceived to achieve a particular end within the whole. So it was intriguing to wonder how such a filmmaker would not only tackle a story as enigmatic and illogical as Kaguya Hime but turn its brief length into a 2+ hour movie.
Takahata's logical approach produces a curious beast - a folktale that attempts to make up for the inherent illogic of the original story by making its characters as believable as possible, and yet at every moment reminds of you that it is not real.
The uncomfortably weird, if beautifully animated, early segment depicting Kaguya Hime having literal 'growth spurts' is the product of Takahata visualizing what was only a vague sentence in the original story. Myths and folktales are full of stock situations and characters not meant to be taken at face value. MNMB features dozens of stories about childless elderly couples who find a child, or a pot of gold, or a child who turns into a pot of gold, by supernatural agency. By their very nature these stories seem meant to be taken metaphorically, which is at odds with the way this film pedantically fleshes everything out.
On the other hand, this tactic of blending unnatural moments seamlessly into the flow of things harkens back to Pompoko (1994) with its tanuki who switch forms between realistic raccoons, cartoon raccoons and humans, and even further back to Jarinko Chie (1981), with its cats that occasionally get up to walk on their hind legs like humans. If the secret to anime's success is in the blank faces of its static anime characters, which prompt viewers to read the appropriate emotion and hence experience the character's world vicariously, Takahata seems to deliberately push you out of the characters to force you to view them from an objective remove.
In the broad strokes, the movie is surprisingly faithful to the original story. It doesn't cheat by being "based on" the story. It basically just pads it out with a tremendous amount of padding in the form of incredibly beautiful character animation and scenes of natural beauty.
Certain elements of the original story didn't make sense, and the movie fills in the holes as best it can. The movie's key contribution is in explaining the reason why Kaguya Hime was banished to the earth in the first place, something the original story conveniently forgot to explain. It's not like she was sent to save us from our sins. Or maybe it is. The heavenly abode on the moon is interpreted with historical verisimilitude as a Buddhist paradise devoid of the suffering and color and emotion and pleasure. Kaguya Hime's sin was to wonder, an enlightened soul, what it was like on earth. Her punishment was to be sent there in order to experience life firsthand - and to become attached to the people she loved, only to be torn away from them. This simple tweak completely changes the meaning of the story, and turns it into a tragic affirmation the whole complicated mess of human experience, including, love, joy and beauty, but also pain and suffering.
The padding isn't just padding, then. It's the whole point of the movie, both thematically and technically. If the padding gives the ending the requisite weight, having an animator like Osamu Tanabe makes it possible to bring it to life. The whole point of this movie is basically to give Osamu Tanabe something to do. That something is what he does best: create realistic character animation in an unrealistic shell.
I wrote a post about Osamu Tanabe in 2007 in the period after Yamadas, when he was pumping out one wonderful short after the next. It certainly took a lot longer than I was hoping for his next project to appear.
Isao Takahata had apparently been struggling to get Osamu Tanabe excited about a theatrical project around that time. Yoshiyuki Momose had drawn lots of image boards for Grave of the Fireflies, as did Shinji Otuska for Ponpoko, in the pre-production stage, so Takahata was apparently expecting Tanabe to do the same. First he tried with a project based on a Ainu 'Yukar' folktale (Hols was originally conceived based on an Ainu Yukar, and was supposed to be an Ainu story, but Toei Doga didn't allow that, so this was obviously a follow-up), and then for a version of the Tale of the Heike, and then a story called The Birth of the Lullabye about babysitters in pre-war Japan, but to no avail. Only after another producer introduced Tanabe to a 1964 book by Shugoro Yamamoto entitled Yanagibashi Monogatari, a love story set among the lower classes in Edo-period Japan, did he begin drawing. Takahata essentially captured that creative momentum and veered it towards Kaguya Hime.
Even in the early stages of production on Kaguya Hime things didn't go smoothly, as apparently a pilot film was produced that was so avant-garde that they had to start all over and go in a new direction. Takahata has written books about scroll paintings, positing them as the ancestors of animation, so I would love to have seen what Takahata could have done with this story in short form, in a style more closely patterned after scroll paintings. For example this image just begs to be brought to life. Perhaps this pilot went in that direction. All this to say that the film had a protracted pre-production stage, even by the standards of the uncompromising Takahata.
One of the key technical details that helped define the film's visuals was devised by Tanabe: draw everything small and enlarge it. He did this for the characters, and art director Kazuo Oga followed suit with the art. What this did is to create lines whose grain is visible, and produce lots of white space. Kaguya Hime's realism captures the beauty of the natural world in a few quick strokes rather than through overwhelming detail.
Although known as a realistic director, Takahata's wisdom is knowing that merely adding more detail and trying for photorealism isn't the answer. Inspired partly by his encounter with Frederic Back, he has since at least Only Yesterday (1991) been working towards a kind of haiku realism, a realism of omission. This started with the flashback segments of Omohide Poroporo, with their white space that highlighted the superficiality of the moment rather than attempting to deceive the audience with overwhelming verisimilitude, and culminated with his actual haiku in Winter Days (2003). The defining trait of Takahata's work is that it is anti-fantasy, and the fascinating thing is that this comes through loud and clear in this film adaptation of Japan's oldest fantasy.
At the behest of Takahata, Tanabe played a particularly large part in defining the film's animation style as the lead animator, rather than merely as the sakkan there to correct animators' drawings. Animators were instructed to adapt to his style so it could seem like the whole film was animated by Tanabe. The beauty is that you can still identify certain animators' sections (Norio Matsumoto, Shinji Otsuka, Shinji Hashimoto, Hideki Hamasu) through the nature of their movement, but the film overall feels unified in its movement style despite featuring work by many different talented animators.
Shinji Hashimoto's powerful section of Kaguya Hime running was featured in the preview and is indeed the film's animation highlight. He also animated a few other shots of Kaguya Hime spinning around. A spattered brushstroke style was adopted for the running sequence that gives it its impact. This was actually a style originally devised for the climactic battle sequence of The Tale of the Heike, but when that project fell through Takahata adapted it here, indicating how determined he was to create this kind of animation. The brush stroke style not only expresses Kaguya Hime's emotions well, but is a match with the ancient setting, and the very visible grain of the strokes in the rest of the movie resulting from magnification.
Takahata's basic approach of keeping the audience at an objective remove can best be seen in the film's final moments. Kaguya Hime is being taken away to the moon, and her parents are bawling because the girl they raised from a child is being taken away. Kaguya Hime has become attached to life in the world, having experienced all the beauty and emotion that it offers, and doesn't want to leave. Precisely at the moment when the audience instinctively wants to feel emotional catharsis, Takahata wrenches us out of the false reality of film with the loudly joyous music of the heavens. The clash is discomfiting and captures the ironic tragedy of the situation, prompting us to think more than feel.
Another defining trait of Takahata's approach to realistic directing is the emphasis on long shots of character acting to make the characters feel real, rather than necessarily trying to be realistic per se by drawing things photorealistically. This film is without doubt the summum opus of this aspect of Takahata's filmmaking language thanks to the synergy of Osamu Tanabe & co.'s remarkably rich character animation. Kaguya Hime's rapid aging is very odd to observe, but it is lovingly depicted by the animation. The original story is terse about why Kaguya Hime was exiled to earth, and almost entirely omits the every detail of her life on earth. All of a sudden, she's being taken away, and her parents are bawling. There's no weight there because we haven't followed her life closely enough to know what led to those feelings. Presented with this, Takahata made the decision to meticulously depict Kaguya Hime's life on earth as a way of giving weight to her and her adopted parents' unwillingness to part. Osamu Tanabe's animation bears the entire burden of this task and makes the character's plight believable.
Takahata has experience directing adaptations of stories about children growing up, most notably Heidi (1974), although Anne of Green Gables (1979) is perhaps the most obvious reference point for its actual depiction of Anne's physical maturation over the course of the series. Here that maturation is depicted on fast-forward in the span of a few minutes. Another reference point is 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (1976), the intermediate step between these two, and the first place where Takahata took steps towards his mature style of objective realism. Heidi still depicted an idealized world, whereas 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother was a documentary in spirit.
It could be in a nod to this that Takahata quotes himself in Kaguya Hime. The scene where Sutemaru gets beaten up is lifted verbatim from episode 45 of 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, in which Marco watches in silent horror from the train on which he has snuck as his friend Pablo runs out to divert the driver, and winds up getting beaten up and left stranded in the middle of the pampas. It's definitely the most powerful scene in an already powerful series, but the scene must have had special meaning to him beyond that for him to quote it in this way. Maybe it's that this scene, which forces the protagonist to become the observer of events beyond his or her control, is meant to remind us of our own position as spectators.
The beautiful art courtesy of Kazuo Oga and his team of background artists is another major draw of the film. Oga is a master of painting the natural world, and with Kaguya Hime he's created one of the most vivid depictions of the natural world yet in anime. He used watercolor to help create the feeling of a living picture scroll. Enlarging the paintings created white spaces that add to the impression by emphasizing the white base. This was his first time as art director for a major film since Pompoko in 1994. He now works mainly as an illustrator, also doing anime background art on a solo basis. The film is thus welcome for getting this great artist to do one more big job.
This approach of having one talented animator and one talented background artist spearhead their respective sections in a very individualistic way goes back at least to Gauche the Cellist (1982), in which animator Toshitsugu Saida drew all of the key animation and artist Takamura Mukuo drew all of the background art.
Although I found the movie somewhat less satisfying than previous Takahata outings, it is still a superbly beautiful film and I am eager to rewatch it again as soon as possible. It's sad that this may be the last major film by this genius, but it's a blessing we have it, as it was a long time coming. Good on Ghibli for being patient over its reported 7 years of production. I'm glad to find with this film that he stayed true to his guns to the last, continuing with his hand-crafted, lushly traditionally animated, anti-heroic, anti-epic brand of animated filmmaking. It's films like this that show that hand-drawn animation still has plenty of life left in it.