Isao Takahata on The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya

The Studio Ghibli co-founder — and anime legend — talks about his gorgeous animated fable with Film4’s Michael Leader…

Studio Ghibli fans may be used to waiting, but there’s nothing in the animation powerhouse’s history quite like the protracted production schedule for The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya. Every delay and missed release date seemed to reaffirm director Isao Takahata’s reputation for taking his time, a tendency that led Hayao Miyazaki to once describe his creative partner as “descended from a giant sloth”. Now, after over eight years in the making, the sublime result finally graces UK cinema screens.

Inspired by a 10th-Century Japanese folk tale, The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya tells the story of a magical baby found in the trunk of a bamboo tree, who grows into a young woman and attracts the attention of a gaggle of high society suitors, before discovering she must return to her home on the Moon. As with many of the gems in the Studio Ghibli canon, Takahata’s film is pitched somewhere between the magical and the melancholic, where scenes of fairytale sweetness coexist with more complicated themes of female independence within patriarchal structures.

If The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya had hit its initial release date, it would have been in Japanese cinemas alongside Hayao Miyazaki’s ambitious aeronautical engineering epic The Wind Rises. Taken separately, they’re both masterpieces, but together they pose a thrilling challenge from these living legends to the next generation of animators: to push the boundaries of the medium. Nowhere is that sense of innovation more evident than in Princess Kaguya’s exquisite animated style, which rejects CGI-assisted polish to embrace an undeniably hand-drawn touch, finding magic in the human.

The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya has such a striking visual style. When you started working on the film, was it the story or this visual style that came to you first?

I previously thought that I would really want to use this kind of line drawing style in my work, no matter what work I did next. So even if I had done some other topic, I would have used this style as well. I had been thinking that cel animation uses some line drawing, but actual line drawing hasn’t been fully expressed in cel animation, and things have progressed more and more toward the 3D format, and I still think that it’s very worthy to have hand-drawn lines. Of course I think there are very good works that are done in 3D such as Toy Story 1 and 2, which I think are wonderfully done, but I really dislike 3D movement, so I wanted to focus on the lines.

What expressive opportunities would you say are provided by this line drawing style? There’s a sequence in the film where Kaguya is running away from the mansion, and the lines just stretch and bend, and it becomes this whirlwind of lines. It was truly exciting — that’s something you don’t see in animation often.

The artist would be very happy to hear that it affected you that much, but this kind of work has to be drawn by very talented people, by brilliant artists, and I was so fortunate to be able to work with Mr Tanabe for the character design and Mr Egawa for the background art because they are really, truly talented people, and it was because of them that I could create this work. I often say that with this loose or rough sketch type drawing, leaving some spaces unfilled allows people to use their imagination, and it allows them to recall their own memories of things while they’re watching the film. But I also think there’s the aspect of conveying the excitement that the artist feels when he’s drawing a very quick sketch. So that kind of vitality and liveliness also appears in the film and I really appreciated that.

What is the role of the director is in a film like this? We see in The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness documentary how Hayao Miyazaki works, very hands on in some cases, so I was wondering if it was similar or different to how you work?

I also am very active in a participatory way when I direct a film. I don’t really draw myself, I’m not an artist, but I do draw some sketches for people to follow. Also, I understand what kind of picture would look best, and what kind of pose to have characters take, the timing of the acting, and the characters’ facial expressions. And so I always participate greatly in any project. It might be a little presumptuous for me to say, but I know what I want and I know how to get it, so I have to direct to show the people how to get there. And sure, Hayao Miyazaki is an artist and can draw, but he doesn’t draw that much anymore, and many animation directors don’t draw. For example, Walt Disney, very famously, he didn’t draw. And people like Miyazaki think they’re sort of sergeants that are really directing their troupe to work on a project, so both he and I participate a lot in the actual production process.

It’s been 47 years since the release of your first feature film, The Little Norse Prince (Horus, Prince Of The Sun), in 1968. That was also the first time that you worked with Hayao Miyazaki. Has the creative impulse, the inspiration to make films, changed over that time?

I feel in both of our films that we could only make these films because we’ve grown old, we’ve gotten older. That’s how I felt towards the end of The Wind Rises. I think that with The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, I could only make this because I have become older. The story really is about death in a way, her return to the moon means death. And people do die, but I think what I wanted to stress is that before we die, we need to figure out how to live on this Earth, and how to live sort of burning with a desire to be alive and that kind of vitality on Earth before our death, or before she returns to the moon. That was what I was conveying I thought, and I think everybody should have that sense that we need to live fully and live in a very lively manner while we are on Earth.

And it is interesting that Princess Kaguya and The Wind Rises create this unit, both, as you say, are films that reflect on treasuring life as it is, but both look ahead to the future. And I wonder do you think, looking at this medium of animation that you have innovated in and revolutionised over 40 years, the future is bright there as well?

I certainly think there will be a lot of innovation and good and interesting works will come in the animation genre. For example, Pixar is very good at expressing in 3D type of animation, and they only do what can be done in that way. The way they do their animation is something that just makes me glued to the screen when I watch it. But I think it really depends on the talent of the people and the way they think. I don’t think quality works will come out of just following a certain trend or fashion in animation. That’s not the creative process. Of course hand drawing and this kind of line drawing that I have been interested in is not necessarily the trend or popular right now, but that will continue also to be done by certain animators. As long as there are talented people, good, innovative works will still be made, and innovative techniques will still be used.

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