At Studio Ghibli, that most wonderfully imaginative of animation production houses, there has been a changing of the guard. Hayao Miyazaki, at the helm of so many of the Japanese studio’s classics – Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbour Totoro – directed his final film, The Wind Rises, last year and now the first “post-Miyazaki” Ghibli movie is set to charm cinemas.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a flawless film that takes its story, of a celestial princess who grows out of a bamboo shoot, from a traditional Japanese fairytale (fans of Studio Ghibli’s work will already be salivating by now and frantically Googling screening times). Despite Miyazaki vacating the director’s chair, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a further example of something for which the studio is happily famous: catapulting another captivating young heroine into the cinematic spotlight. Ghibli gave us Nausicaä, another princess with noble rather than selfish intentions who embarks on a mission to save her people and even her enemies, Kiki the teenage witch who diligently practised her magic against the odds to do favours for an ungrateful town and Spirited Away’s Chihiro, who has to run every sort of errand in a nightmarish bathhouse to right a wrong and turn the world back as it should be (and, of course, make sure her parents don’t stay piggy forever).
Cinemagoers came to be able to tell a Studio Ghibli picture from a mile away. The artists’ house style on these internationally acclaimed films was unmistakably Ghibli; the ethereal atmosphere, the un-manga-ish but decidedly Japanese characters, the ghouls and spectres that seemed to come from the most fevered imagination and the fairytale fauna that were absolute cuteness overload – I’m talking to you, Totoro. I’m wishing you could really talk, Gigi.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya moves the Ghibli aesthetic onward while keeping the style in the same prefecture. These moving pictures have a delicacy, a fine line of detail and abstraction that make your trip to the movies feel like a fast tour of a gallery rather than a sideshow to the popcorn industry. Princess Kaguya grows up to be the most beautiful girl in the land, installed in a gold-leafed prison of a palace in the capital and turning down the wealthiest suitors in the kingdom, while hankering for her old simple life in the countryside. The Ghibli leitmotifs are there: the majesty of nature, the complicated responsibility of strong female characters, magic, myth, nostalgia and great, great beauty. I won’t spoil it but I did say the princess was celestial, didn’t I?
Oh and Ghibli’s new broom turns out to be an oldish one after all: director Isao Takahata co-founded the studio with Miyazaki in 1985 and will be celebrating his 80th birthday in October. Here’s to Studio Ghibli’s stunning status quo.
Robert Bound is culture editor for Monocle.