I watched this quiet miracle of a film recently with my daughter. We have been taking painting lessons together, learning how to blend color, the tonal habits of different brushes, and little techniques artists use to paint things like clouds or shrubs. This made the film a real pleasure for us both, as Takahata’s animation is simple and bold. We could see his choices so clearly – a brush of green here, a wash of blue into a hedge of rust over here, a thin curlicue of ebony hair here.
In our study of painting together, we are learning that art is usually a series of choices. Some of them are made by the habit of practice. You figure out how to create a certain line or texture, and it begins reappearing in your work. Other choices are made by a great struggle to capture the essence of something.
The paintings of an amateur are full and cluttered, the obvious mark of an idea overworked and lost beneath so many strokes of the brush. We have come to learn that the mark of a master is the confident stroke. There is something caught in a good painting; a feeling of something captured. And there is tension present, because this object or idea has been trapped with the minimum necessary lines, textures, and gestures. It feels as if something could break free from the painting at any moment.
This is what Takahata’s animation feels like. The first act of the film burbles with life as we watch the baby princess grow. As the story unfolds, we learn that the quickly growing girl is from the moon. Her great beauty and skill are an echo of the perfection of her people, and her parents, who abide in celestial bliss. We also eventually learn that she will return to the moon and forget the earth and its suffering. Her earthly parents found her in a bamboo stalk, but will see her depart in a cloud of light and color. She is, as the ancient myth suggests, a girl who is always just about to take flight.
Later in the film she does. At a few points, Takahata’s animation loses its simplicity. Princess Kaguya becomes a storm of emotion, the landscape caught up in her black wake. She bursts into the sky, skimming landscapes full of Constable emeralds and Cezanne blues.
But that tension is always present. Her parents have found her and raised her, and now they are going to lose her. At any moment, she could take flight. Like the object of a great painting, Princess Kaguya feels just barely caught, for the span of the film, by Takahata’s simple lines and washes.
At the end of the story, Princess Kaguya returns to the Moon. A Buddha and an apsara appear as her parents. They drape her in the cloak of the moon, which causes her to forget her experience of the earth and her suffering, and she ascends with the great cloud of spirits. In the ancient myth, this departure is a tragedy. A light goes out in the earth when the Princess Kaguya departs. Her parents, distraught, become gravely ill.
Having watched the film with my daughter, I can understand the sentiment. As her father I often feel like she is a girl who could take flight at any moment. Every minute I have with her is a heavenly treasure. Life is short.
And while this is the message of Kaguya’s myth, such melancholy must be held in tension with the idea that there is something within and beyond what we see in nature itself. It is big and bright, full of the music we hear in the mist of spirits descending to claim Kaguya. There is something distinct from time and history toward which our lives aim.
There is much common grace of the Christian sort in animated cinema, but I seldom see it captured with such clarity and scale – or trapped in this case, in such fragile poetry.