Over the course of the next two weekends, Museum Films will be celebrating Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation giant responsible for more great animated films during the past thirty years than any other global outfit (not to slight Pixar, which itself boasts an extraordinary release slate). Emphatically opening OKCMOA’s nine-film program is the latest major work from studio veteran Isao Takahata, The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013). Based on a 10th-century folktale that is considered by some to be Japan’s oldest existing narrative, The Tale of Princess Kaguya tells the story of a micro-sized princess, who is discovered in a gleaming stalk of bamboo by an aged bamboo cutter. Raised by he and his gentle wife, Princess Kaguya grows rapidly into a beautiful young woman, who will soon garner the attention of the kingdom’s most prized suitors – including the young prince himself. A fable of sexual maturation, child-parent relations and time’s inexorable passage, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is at once a work, from Takahata (b.: 1935), of wise old age – The Tale of Princess Kaguya endeavors to be about nothing so much as how to live life – and also an object of Buddhist philosophy, incorporating the latter religious system’s iconography both graphically and in its referencing of a turning waterwheel.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is also, quite appropriately, keenly attuned to the natural world from which Kaguya comes into being, simply but elegantly rendering the blossoming plum and cherry trees, a flock of birds and a bouncing pheasant as the seasons’ turn along with the water wheel. Takahata even includes a breast-feeding scene early in the film, in a measure of the film’s thorough grounding in an abundant and nurturing nature – though one which will need to be replenished as the bamboo cutters move to another locale.
Visually no less than narratively, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a work in which everything reads as traditional, with the picture’s pen, pencil, crayon and watercolors economically animating a poetically maximal natural world. At the same time, Takahata brings an expressionistic touch to his moments of emotional rapture, allowing dynamic charcoal lines and a simple splash of carnation to exclusively fill the screen, for instance, as Kaguya runs away from her progressively unappealing fate – and for the characters to soar above the ground in one of the screen’s more stirring translations of romantic feeling.
Takahata is well represented in Celebrating Studio Ghibli, with my own personal favorite from the director – and my nominee for the most underrated Ghibli title – Only Yesterday (1991), providing a substantial day-two highlight. In Only Yesterday, Takahata once again explores a young woman’s adolescence, which the director represents through a flashback structure that also provides a poignant glimpse into the nation’s disappearing near past. Takahata is a master of receding forms.
However, as with any showcase of the Japanese firm, it is not Takahata, but rather 2015 honorary Academy Award ®-winner Hayao Miyazaki (b.: 1941) who will figure most prominently in the upcoming series. Of the director’s many signature achievements, two stand out for this writer as supreme masterpieces not just within the Ghibli canon, but indeed among all achievements in animated film form. The first is another week one highlight, My Neighbor Totoro (1988), where two young girls move with their single father to the Japanese countryside. Where Takahata’s films demonstrate a Buddhist sense of human transience, Miyazaki is the cinema’s great Shintoist director, animating (excuse the wretched pun) his film worlds with the spiritual kami and the ritual acts of purification that differentiate the endemic (national) Japanese faith. My Neighbor Totoro is especially rich, moreover, in its extremely sensitive rendering of the natural world, a Shintoist artistic approach once more that elevates a flickering woodland shadow or the sun’s reflection on an irrigated rice field into something much greater than additive background detail. In Miyazaki’s hands, the beauty of the Japanese landscape is not background, but rather the substance and purpose of his peerless art. The beauty of nature is no less than the picture’s subject in both My Neighbor Totoro and The Tale of Princess Kaguya.
Week two features the second of the aforementioned stand-outs, everybody’s favorite Ghibli mega-hit Spirited Away (2001), long Japan’s all-time box office champion. Shinto cosmology is again present, though in this instance in a more explicit form, in both the bathhouse and its unclean spirit-world visitors. By giving visual representation to the kami therefore, Spirited Away is a film that is almost inconceivable in any other medium as it is a work that visualizes, in the Shinto tradition, the invisible presence underlying all perceivable reality. Spirited Away is doubly cultural specific in its connection to recent Japanese history and to the 1990’s economic downturn that the film’s abandoned amusement park (and conspicuous consumption) suggests. At the same time, and in a measure of its extraordinary appeal, it is also a work that speaks directly to its immediately pre-adolescent female spectators across culture, reassuring said viewer that there is nothing to fear in forging relationships with young men and entering the workforce. Specific though its address may be, in terms of culture and gender, this is truly a film for everyone.