I am certain I do not have the words to capture what The Tale of Princess Kaguya has done to me. Suffice it to begin by saying that this film is nothing short of a masterpiece: in artwork, in music, in its voice acting, and above all, its storytelling. Spoilers below.
An old bamboo cutter named Okina [Old Man] finds a glowing bamboo shoot in the forest, which bears an impossibly small child— a princess that would fit snugly in one hand. He carefully takes her home to his wife, Ona [Old Woman], where they both marvel at the impossible girl. The princess grows in size and transforms into a seemingly normal baby, but the omen is clear to Okina: The child is destined to grow up to be a princess.
I'm already failing to do this justice. The film captures something magic in the old man's discovery, in his delicate steps home (careful not to bruise the treasure in his hands), in the delight on Ona's face when she sees her daughter for the first time.
The baby does not stay small for long. Within days, she's taken up hopping like a frog and toddling about on her own. The village's sprats take note of her and name her 'Little Bamboo'. The name is entirely accurate. The princess spends an idyllic time with her young friends, while Okina (played to the hilt by Takeo Chii) suddenly fears losing the thing that has become most precious to him... joining the ranks of countless fathers before him.
Okina returns to the woods where he found the princess. This time, the bamboo delivers a small mountain of silk robes, and a fortune in gold. Any doubts the viewers may have about the girl's destiny are wiped away, here. The princess has a very specific future ahead of her... and it doesn't lie in a meager village.
The bamboo cutter wants only the best for his adopted daughter, so he spends the following weeks going to and from the Capital, purchasing land and building a mansion. (It's implied Okina has become as wealthy as the richest men in the country.) The princess continues to grow, reaching thirteen 'years' old in a matter of months. Okina sneaks his wife and child out of the village one night, never to return.
It is not long before the princess reaches adolescence, and we reach the major arc of the picture. A priest visits to name the mysterious girl. (Aside from the girl's father, he is the only male allowed in the same room with her, at this point.) Struck by her grace and beauty, the priest quickly spreads word. It's not long before an army of suitors hound the princess, day and night.
A recurring theme in fiction: on meeting someone truly exceptional, our worst qualities quickly rise to the surface. So it is with the Princess. All anyone can see of her (through veils and behind blinds) is the value they would bring as a wife, the pleasure in owning something so beautiful. The princess grows more isolated, more remote.
Eventually, five of the richest men in the land arrive to proclaim their devotion, comparing the unseen princess' beauty to items of impossible splendor.
In a masterstroke, she bids them bring her these impossible items, as proof of their love and devotion— not out of greed, but rather to dissuade the men from their goal. It does not work.
To reveal more of the story would deprive you of discovering it for yourself. I would not rob you of that. Instead, I will put my focus elsewhere.
The film was created by Studio Ghibli. Its credentials could be no higher.
If the film were completely silent, it would lose none of its splendor.
I don't know why you're reading these words when you could just be soaking up the artwork. Seriously.
Aki Asakura plays the princess, and she breathes incredible life into the role. She delivers incredible feeling that is nigh-impossible to ignore. The princess longs for a simple life, the very thing made impossible by her inherent magic. A revelation in the last act of the film heightens the character's emotional awareness, and it is... well. It is.
As the old bamboo cutter, Takeo Chii is a withered kiln with the heart of a blasting furnace. The arrival of his daughter gives him a buoyant energy and childlike exuberance: an old man with childlike delight.
Nobuko Miamaoto brings balance and quiet, humble grace to Ona: the one character who doesn't try to pull Kaguya into becoming something she's not. She is the anchor to Chii's high-flying zeal.
Kengo Kora is earnest, simple, and strong as Sutemaru, a childhood friend of Kaguya's, who later grows into the man she inevitably encounters again.
(I have yet to experience the film with its American cast, but I plan to shortly.)
Joe Hisaishi composed the film's score, taking over for Shin'ichirō Ikebe. The score— samples of which can be found on youtube— does a hell of a job of capturing the film's majesty, and the grandeur of an untamed heart. (I apologize for the prose, but this f***er hit me in the chest like a mac truck.)
Hisaishi's music also manages a dreadful feat in the final act: it delivers a happy processional that is both light and frightening.
See this film. See this film. See this film. It will tug at strings in you... that you forgot were there.