I am constantly in awe when reflecting upon how downright ravishingly beautiful of an artistic achievement this film is. I'll attempt to describe my impressions to you. Isao Takahata made his ultimate masterpiece with this film. In every sense of the word. As much as his death in April of 2018 pained my soul (especially upon discovering he was planned to direct a short film in Studio Ponoc's recent Modest Heroes anthology), there could not have been a more perfect film to go out on. Very rarely has any movie made me visibly emotional, but Kaguya accomplished the task like it was child's play. At moments I was laughing, then in a later scene I was immediately reduced to a sobbing mess. Movies have made me tear up before, but never full on cry. Except, of course, for Grave of the Fireflies (another film oh-so conveniently directed by Takahata). Takahata has a great understanding of human emotions not often seen by other directors. Emotions almost literally spill off the screen in his films, and Princess Kaguya is no exception. The film itself is a lovely metaphor for life itself. In that it makes you feel every emotion in the book.
You go on a journey with this strong women who constantly refuses to form into the mold that society dictates she must fit into. Kaguya is a very interesting protagonist, and you never want to take your eyes off the screen. The ways she thwarts her "enemies" are more emotional than physical, she's smart like that. The story starts out with a charming air of enthusiasm as little Kaguya explores this beautiful world, but be warned. While it offers many themes of life to ponder over, this is not what I would describe as a happy tale. As Kaguya matures, so too does the tone of the film. It gets increasingly dark in its subject matter, and Kaguya's life doesn't exactly get more uplifting. But she grows as a person, and it reminded me of my own struggles in life. When you're young, you are much more oblivious to the dark and sometimes evil world out there. And throughout the film Kaguya realizes that life without true happiness isn't really living at all. There are many lovable characters you meet throughout the film, and like any Ghibli film worth its salt, this film doesn't have any clearly defined villain either. There are definitely some less than desirable characters in there (the emperor definitely comes to mind, he was an ass), but none are outright evil. There are a lot of assholes in the real world too. Kaguya's adoptive mother and father are caring and gentle, and only want what they personally think is best for her. Even if her views of happiness don't match up with theirs. Oh, and Kaguya's handmaiden was absolutely aces (whom I eventually found was voiced in the dub by the wonderful Hynden Walch, the voice of Princess Bubblegum, which makes it even better).
Art and Animation
The artwork is of course a very high selling point for the film, and one of its greatest strengths. Inspired by traditional watercolor paintings and charcoal sketches from ancient Japanese scrolls and envisioned by the criminally unknown but massively influential artist Yoshiyuki Momose (who partnered with Takahata on many of his films to bring the director's ideas to visual fruition), the film's emotions at many times come through in the art itself. During one particularly notable scene in the film when Kaguya escapes from the castle in an enraged fury, the animation follows suit by evolving into an erratic and wild explosion of rough charcoal lines and tones of black and grey, with a striking and ominous moon looming in the background (a symbol that is foreshadowed many times throughout the film). Another sequence involving a nobleman hunting down a dragon of legends is so fluidly drawn yet rough at the same time. It was absolutely entrancing. In fact, now that I think about it, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is probably the only animated film that truly takes advantage of the capabilities of the animated medium. It employs its unique visual style to actually enhance the mood the film is attempting to get across, making it all the more powerful.
The soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi is possibly equally as wonderful. It only enhances the film's impact, with beautiful tracks that have stayed imprinted in my head ever since. It just feels so right. The main theme that repeats throughout the film represents the beauty of life, perfectly accommodating the film's own themes. And it doesn't hurt that it's also extremely catchy, as well as the upbeat Celestial Being music that plays during a not-so-upbeat moment during the climax of the film. There's also one more recurring track initially played at the beginning of the film that is a very simple but haunting melody that stuck with me until the end. Hearing it now having seen the film tends to bring a tear to my eye. I do believe it is some of Hisaishi's best work. We were spoiled the year of this film's release with not one but two of his soundtracks, the other for The Wind Rises. And while that film's soundtrack was great as well, I feel as though this one edges it out simply by being so perfect for the film it's accompanying. Everything is just so wonderfully timed.
Some lovely Japanese tracks are played on the koto as well, so while Ghibli's English dub (which is included in the Japanese release) is just as high quality as we've come to expect (It has James Caan!), I'd personally recommend that you watch it in its original Japanese first so you can experience the lovely singing. It's always difficult to re-dub those scenes in foreign films anyway, but Ghibli did a good job with it nonetheless.
In closing, should you see this film? Yes. As soon as it is humanly possible for you to do so. It's stuck with me long after I've seen it, just like all great films do. And hopefully it will stick with you as well. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry. It will make you feel human. And I respect any work of art that can make me feel that way. To describe the plot in any more detail would be to rob you from experiencing it for yourselves. The best recommendation I can give you is to go in blind, and if you haven't read the original story yet that'd be even better. This way you'll get the full, unspoiled experience.This is indeed Isao Takahata's magnum opus, and Ghibli's penultimate achievement. Definitely check it out. Just make sure you have a box of tissues handy. Or two.