It’s become the stuff of anime legend, of continual confusion, of many an ill-advised dare: the double feature of My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies. Back in 1988, Studio Ghibli’s most iconically adorable movie was released as a double feature with their most infamously heart-breaking one. The double bill screened in both orders to predictably divided responses. Those who saw Grave first and Totoro second had one of the most intense yet ultimately uplifting theater-going experiences ever, while those who watched them in the reverse order, well, insert offensive joke about the reason Japan’s suicide rate is so high here. Well, in his final movie, it seems as if Grave director Isao Takahata has tried to give a slightly toned down but still heavily potent version of the Totoro-then-Grave experience condensed into a single feature with The Tale of The Princess Kaguya.
The first half hour or so of Kaguya is pure Totoro-style kids-being-kids, beauty-of-nature magic. It stands out as looking quite different from Totoro, however, as well as different from pretty much any other anime I can think of. Normally Studio Ghibli films operate under a Miyazaki-inspired house style with streamlined characters and elaborately detailed backgrounds. Kaguya on the other hand paints its characters with rough inky lines and its backgrounds in minimalist watercolors, looking more like classical Japanese artwork. Oftentimes the edges of the backgrounds are deliberately not painted in, framing scenes in negative space somewhat similar to the ways silent film cinematographers would frequently soften out the hard edges of the film frame. Sometimes the backgrounds disappear entirely, evoked only by the layered compositions of the characters.
After the bamboo-born Kaguya is sent from her idyllic life in the woods to become a princess, it becomes less Miyazaki-esque and more like what might happen if Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi co-directed a movie together. The thematic occupations (Ozu’s familial sorrow and Mizoguchi’s empathy towards the plight of women) are constant, while the visuals shift between Ozu-style stillness and Mizoguchi-esque camera movement. It’s very slow-moving, sometimes tiringly so, yet it builds emotions into explosions of passion, moments of transcendence which rank among the greatest Ghibli’s produced (including what might be the single most beautiful product of the studio’s long obsession with animating flight). Takahata’s unpredictable in when he’ll make a shift in style or tone. The last time he did a fairy tale infused with Japanese mythology, Pom Poko, the results were extremely scattered and it was hard to know what to make of it. With Kaguya, he has much more fleshed out characters to play with, so his shifts between playfulness and seriousness, action and quiet, play better than they did in that prior film. There’s more of a sense of control here, though it’s still hard to predict the jolt of when he shifts gears.
Though this is a fairy tale, it’s one best appreciated by older children and adults. It’s refreshingly honest in its casual occasions of non-sexual nudity and a clear allusion to menstruation. It deals with heavy, upsetting themes: depression, patriarchal control, the threat of rape. And, as you might have guessed given the Grave of the Fireflies comparison, it does not have a happy ending. It is an ending that makes you grateful for happiness. It’s eerily beautiful and strange. It is, as tumblr might put it, “all the feels.” And it is absolutely devastating. Have tissues on hand. Like Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, Kaguya is a challenging farewell from an old master of the artform. In terms of moment-to-moment entertainment value, it ranks fairly low among the Ghibli ranks, but in terms of cumulative impact, it’s among their best.
Kaguya‘s in limited release (in the Boston area, its Apple Cinemas run appears to be ending on Tuesday), but if you want to arrange a screening, you can request one on Gathr.