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Review: Studio Ghibli's 'The Tale of The Princess Kaguya' is one gorgeous bummer

Possibly the second-to-last film from Studio Ghibli, "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" charts the life of a mysterious girl found in a bamboo stalk.

A man happens upon a tiny girl in "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya." Credit: GKids A man happens upon a tiny girl in "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya."
Credit: GKids

‘The Tale of The Princess Kaguya’
Director: Isao Takahata
Voices of: Chloe Grace Moretz, James Caan (English-dubbed version)
Rating: PG
4 (out of 5) Globes

The renowned Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli announced an indefinite, possibly permanent, halt to their productions, making the new “The Tale of The Princess Kaguya” their possible penultimate film. (The potential last, “When Marnie Was There,” hit its homeland over the summer.) Whether or not it’s the actual second-to-last Ghibli product, it’s definitely an autumnal work — the kind of film made with apparent effortlessness, whose riches only reveal themselves gradually. No matter how much you enjoy it, you’re almost certainly underrating it.

The story is an oft-told one: the 10th century folk-tale “The Tale of The Bamboo-Cutter,” whose many adaptations include the nutty “Princess from the Moon,’ by Kon Ichikawa. Director Isao Takahata’s take is far more calm. It tells of a bamboo cutter (voice of James Caan in the English-language dub) who happens upon a mysterious, tiny girl in a glowing bamboo stalk. He adopts her as his own, and she grows into a regular-seeming girl (with the voice of Chloe Grace Moretz, who is now officially everywhere). But after a semi-normal childhood she is treated like a princess she is, but she’s never happy with the riches and aggressive suitors that come with it.

Painted in pastels and charcoal, “Princess Kaguya” resembles an old storybook (not unlike the French “Ernest & Celestine”), sometimes even Bill Plympton. The characters are minimalist, even incomplete, the backgrounds not always filled in. It’s soothing on the eyes, just as the gradual pacing — this is Studio Ghibli’s longest-ever film — is easy on the mind. The plot is jam-packed with incident, making “Kaguya” seem narratively busy and sometimes slight.

But stick with it; its power is one that creeps up. Takahata is best-known for “Grave of The Fireflies,” one of the great films about death, and this is one of the great films about life’s disappointments, about aging and losing friends and turning into someone you once decidedly were not. It’s a graceful and languorous bummer, so effortlessly elegant and wise that by the devastating final reel you won’t know what hit you.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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