Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is an astoundingly beautiful anime based on a 10th-century Japanese folk story, The Bamboo Cutter and the Moon-Child. The film is directed by Isao Takhata (Grave of the Fireflies) and took eight years to make.
The story starts with a bamboo cutter in the forest who comes across a tiny princess inside a bamboo plant surrounded by light. Believing it is a gift from Heaven, the bamboo cutter takes the princess home, and she turns into a baby that he and his wife set out to raise.
The child is different from other kids and grows quite fast. The other kids from the village nickname her “Little Bamboo,” but the father insists her name is “Princess.” This set ups a divide; the princess enjoys life and the immediacy of nature, while her father’s belief in her noble destiny pushes that life away.
The bamboo cutter is out working one day and finds gold in a piece of bamboo. Taking it as a sign of divine intervention, he believes that it is time for him to take the girl to the capital and start raising her like a princess. They leave for the capital, but the princess is heartbroken to leave the mountains, nature, and her friends.
She is reluctantly trained to behave as a princess should behave. At the height of her frustration, five of the highest suitors in the capital propose marriage. The princess orders them to prove their love by completing a series of near-impossible tasks.
In one of the most explosive sequences of the film, the princess bursts through the walls of the prison that her father and society built around her.
Barrier after barrier, she breaks through, escaping at high speed with dramatic music and hard drawn charcoal edges that push her back to her home in the woods, the place where she was raised. When she arrives, she sees that everyone from the village has gone and the place has changed. She eventually falls asleep in the snow, only to wake up back at the palace.
In another stunningly beautiful dream sequence, we see her reuniting with a boy from the mountains she was in love with as a teenager. They fly through the air together using her unearthly powers. “I could have been happy with you,” she tells him.
The film takes on another interesting and powerful turn that takes us back to where the princess originally came from, but to write more would give away the story.
A song the princess was born knowing and remembers in the final scenes:
It’s a fascinating story about loss, separation, and the pain of leaving things behind.