Exquisite. The animated films of Isao Takahata never found the mainstream Stateside audience of his Ghibli Studios co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. But here, in his likely swansong, he’s made a fable for grown-ups, tough & enchanted, that deserves the broad acceptance he never quite managed over here. Discovered inside a bamboo tree by a wood cutter, and raised by his wife, a tiny princess grows to maturity in the space of a season, happy with her countryside friends and with the rural rhythm of the days. But her adopted father wants only the best for her, and with gold magically harvested from the forest, they move to the city where the young beauty is schooled in formal manners, then courted by the great men of the realm. No doubt, you’ll guess much of the rest, though the film has more melancholy & cruelty than an audience-tested American product. But it’s the quietly spectacular, airy watercolor look of the film that’s so masterful here. As if the free-form animated drawing style of John & Faith Hubley were ennobled by Japanese landscape painting. The lightly textured images are simply dazzling. Too bad the all-star English language track delivers cute/sentimental business-as-usual characterizations that largely miss Takahata’s delicate tone. (There’s always the original Japanese track, but subtitles are more distraction than usual here.)
DOUBLE-BILL: Takahata’s last full-length animation, MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMADAS/’99 (not seen here), broke dramatically with Ghibli house style. Not considered a success when released, it was probably a necessary step on the path to KAGUYA.