Even casual fans of animation know that Hayao Miyazaki is the wizard of Japan’s Studio Ghibli and one of the all-time masters of his art. Fewer are aware of his long-time colleague Isao Takahata, cofounder of Ghibli, whose films tend toward realism while Miyazaki’s bend toward the surreal. Takahata’s “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988), a startlingly harsh tale of childhood suffering during World War II, is a little-seen classic that may be the most somber animated film ever made.
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” then, comes as a surprise from this filmmaker. It’s a gentle epic, based on a 10th-century Japanese folk tale, that uses pencils, ink, and impressionistic washes of color to convey a glowing visual otherworld, one that stands in contrast both to Takahata’s earlier work and the hard-edged lines and bright tones of much anime.
An elderly bamboo cutter (voiced by Takeo Chii) discovers a magic baby in a stalk of bamboo and brings her home to his wife (Nobuku Miyamoto), who raises her as their own. The girl grows quickly — a fresh spurt each time she laughs or cries — and soon has a gaggle of friends with whom she runs wild, the eldest (and most handsome) of which is Sutemaru (Kenji Koru). But the bamboo cutter has ambitions and brings his wild child to the capital, where he has her made over into a lady, dubs her Princess Kaguya (Aki Asakura), and offers her up to the noble class as a bride. The girl resists but soon has her eyebrows plucked and teeth blackened in the accepted fashion. An array of princes and ministers praise her looks and offer rare and mythical treasures. Fine, she says, go bring them to me.
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” has moments of wry humor but mostly it is about beauty, nature, and loss. A mysterious song occasionally bubbles up in the princess, about birds, beasts, and bugs, trees, flowers, and plants, and the feeling is that wherever she came from is a place far more in tune with the rhythms of the universe than our worldly sphere. Toward the end, after she has spurned the callow young emperor himself (Nakamura Schichinosuke II), she sadly tells her adopted father “The happiness you wished for me was hard to bear.”
If there’s a message here about the foolhardiness of parental expectations, it fades away in the face of the film’s rapturous visuals. Takahata is one of the few animation directors who’s not an artist himself, so “Princess Kaguya” owes much to longtime Ghibli animators Osamu Tanabe (who drew the characters) and Kazuo Oga (who handles the art). They create a surpassingly delicate landscape full of space and light, with debts to classic Japanese printmaking and watercolors and a background hum of Buddhist art that becomes more pronounced in the final scenes.
Yet the film’s tone — the sense of characters grasping to hold on to innocence as the civilized world whisks it away — is all Takahata. At 2 hours and 17 minutes, none of them boring, “Princess Kaguya” may be too lengthy for the youngest audiences, and the lack of a Disneyesque happy ending may cause long silences, if not tears, when the lights come up. On the other hand, this is one of those rare children’s stories that acknowledges emotions — sorrow, melancholy, yearning — the grown-ups are usually too scared to bring up. It’s the sort of incandescent experience that may bloom in a child’s mind for the rest of his or her life.
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is showing at the Apple Cinemas in Cambridge in two versions. The Japanese-language original with English subtitles plays in the evenings, while an English-language dub, featuring the voices of Chlöe Moretz as Kaguya, and James Caan and Mary Steenburgen as the bamboo cutter and his wife, screens during the daytime. Only the subtitled version was available for review. Either is among the most transporting visual experiences you will have this year.