The Tale of Princess Kaguya: Challenging the norms of visual representation

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Isao Takahata’s 2013 feature film The Tale of Princess Kaguya has been extensively praised by critics and audiences alike for its visual beauty. Whether it’s seen as a celebration of hand-drawn animation, a smorgasbord of colorful imagery, or a soothing exercise in simplicity, the consensus is that this film presents an incredible feast for the eyes. What hasn’t so much been touched upon though is the arguably main reason behind this wide acknowledgement of the film’s visual aspect, namely the unique approach to the animated medium that it displays. There is no doubt that Princess Kaguya doesn’t look like your typical anime, or your typical animated work in general for that matter – but what elements does this deviation actually consist of, and what can they say about the work as a whole?

At its core, the visual style of Princess Kaguya presents an ambivalent dance between figuration and abstraction. To understand what this means, it would be helpful to look at the relatively recent history of western painting. Throughout the renaissance until as late as the mid-1800s, painting (along with all other art forms) had its main purpose in representing the motif that it contained. The depicted scene in question was the first and foremost object of interest, and all forms of visual artistic expression was to benefit this depicted scene and not get in the way of it. This all changed however during the late 18oos with the rise of modernism. What started as a subtle touch within the realist movement, grew into a noticeably prominent element in impressionism, and then evolved throughout much of the modernist era, was a gradually increasing degree of incorporated abstraction. Paintings weren’t just visually figurative windows into another world anymore, but started to more and more become platforms for artistic expressions of different kinds.

One essential element to this interplay between the figurative and the abstract that the early modernist painters introduced is the varying degrees of which the medium itself is or isn’t made visible. The more abstract a painting is, the more apparent it becomes that it is in fact a painting – while the more figurative it is, the more this fact becomes disguised. This can furthermore be seen as having two major factors. One has to do with the illusion of three-dimensionality; up to the 1850s, painters used various techniques to make their works seem like windows into three-dimensional spaces, but as the abstraction increased, the paintings’ actual qualities as flat surfaces became more apparent. The other is the visibility of the brushstrokes; something that before the 1850s was deliberately avoided in order to make way for the motif, but got throughout modernism an increasing role alongside and sometimes even above the motif. While the figuration-abstraction-interplay saw varying levels between its two halves throughout many of modernism’s movements – some of which even abandoned the figurative entirely – its early dawn is a particularly interesting case in that it displays a condition where the halves are on equal footing. The paintings are just as figurative as they are abstract, creating a very tense and interesting limbo between the two, and also consequently between the non-visibility and visibility of the medium.

It is in this limbo that we also find Princess Kaguya. The objects and characters portrayed onscreen are on one hand visually defined concrete things with their realistic contours and movements – but on the other hand, the film makes no effort in trying to hide the fact that these things are, at the end of the day, pens and brushes on paper. Like the paintings that formed the dawn of the modernist era, Princess Kaguya subtly yet actively breaks the illusion of realism that is traditionally upheld in order to immerse the audience, creating a highly unique approach to the animated medium.

All the factors that make up the film’s basic visual style are participants in this activity. One of them is the charcoal used to draw the outlines of all the shapes and contours, making them significantly more distinct than the discretely thin lines of typically used graphite pencils. Much of this distinctness is due to the notably less monochrome character of the charcoal material, bearing a slight fuzziness to it as well as being more dynamically sensitive in its usage. This subsequently results in a very distinct character to the animation, as all the frames that make up the movements are made visible due to the visual uniqueness of each individual frame’s set of charcoal lines.

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Accompanying the charcoal lines are furthermore watercolors, which are provided by the film’s art director Kazuo Oga. Having worked on various Ghibli and Madhouse films since the 1970s (including some of Takahata’s previous works), Oga’s images contain a generally light yet vibrant flavor, which here is given a central role to the film’s visual language. Different color pallets are wildly used to set the tones for various scenes, from cheerfully bright greens and pinks to somberly dim greys and blues. More than that, the watercolors aren’t just present in the background as is typically the case, but are used for all visual elements onscreen, thus taking an active role in the film’s action. This ultimately results in an overall more abstract visual touch; due to watercolors’ physical nature, it is both hard to control and has a rather moist look to it, something that can work very naturally for backgrounds and surroundings, but results in notably less concreteness when applied to the things in the foreground – not least when they are in motion.

Added to this is also a general sense of minimalism. Instead of trying to achieve a realistic immersion through detailed drawings and fluid animation, Princess Kaguya presents a much more restrained approach in its visual direction, one that purposefully involves absence. The charcoal lines aren’t necessarily drawn to complete the shapes of their objects but only enough to make the shapes visible, just as the watercolors don’t always fill in these shapes entirely or are even retained within their borders. Several sceneries even contain big areas of blank paper where no background art has been added. Not only are the two used materials inherently filled with unique expressions, but they are used in a highly simplistic and loose manner which even further highlights these expressions.

Together, these three elements – the charcoal, the watercolor and the minimalism – are what forms Princess Kaguya‘s level of abstraction. By using these materials and methods in portraying figurative motifs, the film presents an incredibly tense and contrasting interplay between its visual representations and the means by which they are represented. We see how the illusion of three-dimensionality is subtly broken, partly because of the same materials being used for both background and foreground, partly because of the large areas of blank paper. We also see a strong visibility of the brushstrokes in both the charcoal and watercolor usage, as well as in the simplistic looseness by which they are applied.

My Neighbors the Yamadas

Even though this visual style is highly unique in he context of general animation, it isn’t the first time that Takahata has used it. The exact same combination of charcoal lines, watercolors and restrained minimalism can be seen in his prior film My Neighbors the Yamadas from 1999, where it is used to create a more sketchy and comic strip-like aesthetic. This purposefully adds to not only its very lighthearted and comedic tone, but also its format, consisting of a series of vignettes about the daily lives of its titular ensemble cast. Its successor however presents a much more dynamic approach to the style. Contrary to The Yamadas, Princess Kaguya is a story of depth and drama containing instances of all different kinds of physical actions and emotional weight, which are strongly enhanced by its visual components. We’ve previously seen how the watercolor pallets radically differ depending on the moods of the different scenes. Similarly, the charcoal is used in varying ways to convey both different physical actions and the underlying emotions of these actions. To compare the two still images below, we see in the first how our protagonist is joyfully swirling under a blossoming cherry tree. The charcoal lines that portray the contours of her face and clothes as well as the darkness of her hair are expressively drawn to capture the movement of the scene, but are at the same time thin enough to leave most room for the bright and vibrant watercolors. The second image conveys the exact opposite emotions, as we see her running through a dark forest in anger and frustration. The charcoal is here given central focus, forcefully capturing both the physical movement and feelings of our character with its rough and scribbled drawings. Kaguya, being portrayed from a distance, is reduced to almost no more than a blob, as both she and her surroundings are devoured by an incredibly strong level of abstraction. If this visual style was established by The Yamadas, then Princess Kaguya presents a significantly more elaborate utilization of its possibilities.

This could hardly have been achieved through a more conventional approach to the animated medium. The simplistic looseness and lack of photorealistic detail truly opens up for more vivid visual expressions, but also more room for the audience’s imagination. As Takahata himself has stated in an interview, he sought turning away from any strive for realism to instead embrace the medium of painting, and the possibilities that it contains. By incorporating a more abstract and minimalist approach, he wanted to achieve the impression rather than the representation of the film’s visual subjects:

[…] rather than drawing in every detail and depicting something as if the real thing were there, paintings inherently have the great power to stir up the viewer’s vivid imagination and memory when the brush is used sparingly to give an impression of the real thing.

I chose this style because I didn’t want people to forget this. The lines drawn here are not just the contours of the real things, but rather ways to instantaneously capture the expression of those things. And if there is movement, then they are the ‘pictures’ that vividly capture the force of the movement.

This technique of giving expression to the line and leaving blank spaces so that the entire surface of the painting is not filled, which engages the viewer’s imagination, is one that holds an important place not only in traditional paintings of China and Japan, but also in sketches in Western drawings. What I have done is to attempt to bring this technique to animation.

The intention for Princess Kaguya‘s visual style was to be a reminder of the medium’s presence and capabilities, to depict not just its visual subjects but the expressions of these subjects, and to incorporate an inherent degree of abstraction in order to evoke the audience’s imagination. But what this quote furthermore suggests in its last paragraph is that the core concept at hand here is influenced by traditional Chinese and Japanese painting. Expanding upon this, I’d like to look at one of the traditions that Takahata is supposedly referring to, namely Japanese ink painting, and see what meaning can be drawn from its comparison to the film.

The ink painting of Japan is a tradition that spans as far back as the mid-14th century, when Zen Buddhist monks introduced the Chinese painting school of chan to the country in the form of suibokuga. While chan painting was traditionally done by monks for meditational purposes, its Japanese counterpart generally consisted of copying Chinese imported models while staying as true as possible to their original aesthetic. Suibokuga subsequently reached its height during the Muromachi period (1338-1573) when it spread into the general art world and rose in popularity. Later during the 18th century, the tradition saw a new wave when Japanese intellectuals caught a keen interest for the outside world, and paintings of the new, more individualistic iteration of the chan school were entering Japan through the port of Nagasaki. The result was a new and updated version of the suibokuga tradition called nanga. Even though this new wave was based on a school of individualism and free expression, like its predecessor it still saw an importance in remaining true to its peers. This all changed however with the rise of artist Ike Taiga, who took this newly formed school and friskily played around with its frameworks, incorporating one unorthodox method after the other. With several pupils and followers succeeding him, Taiga established nanga as a school of experimentation and expressive playfulness. If one were to compare Princess Kaguya to a specific incarnation in the history of Japanese ink painting, it would be nanga. More than that, it wouldn’t be too far fetched to draw a parallel between the evolution from suibokuga to nanga and the development from My Neighbors the Yamadas to Princess Kaguya.

So what does the visual resemblance of nanga and its associated ink painting tradition say about this film? First off, it can be seen as bearing a thematic relevance, considering the film is an adaptation of one of Japan’s oldest folk tales. Second off, and perhaps most interestingly, it bears a contextual significance. During the same period as the rise of the upper class-oriented nanga, another art form emerged within the middle class called ukiyo-e. Roughly translating to “pictures of the floating world”, ukiyo-e was done through either painting or reproduced woodblock prints, and depicted various motifs from the urban nightlife of the Edo-era bourgeois. In contrast to nanga‘s use of ink, the visual depictions of ukiyo-e followed the tradition of yamato-e, a form of painting that dates back as far as the hand scrolls of the 12th and 13th centuries. Despite containing the same sense of minimalism as its ink-based counterpart, yamato-e bears a fundamentally different sense of visuality with its high attention to detail, thin but well-defined lines and contours, and strong monochrome colors. As such, the visual style of ukiyo-e differs significantly from that of nanga, especially in relation to figuration and abstraction; whereas the latter portrays its motifs through visible brushstrokes and an impressionistic looseness, the former hides its brushstrokes while using clear-cut outlines and colorations.

One of the most famous ukiyo-e artists, whose some works are widely recognized even today, is Katsushika Hokusai. Hokusai rose to fame because of one particular series of sketches, published between 1814 and 1878, that featured various lighthearted and often comedic depictions of everything from animals, landscapes, everyday activities to supernatural creatures. While originally intended as an art instruction book to aid his bad income, the first volume quickly became a public success for its realistically detailed images, making him follow it up with 14 more books throughout the years. Because of the collection’s fairly silly tone, he decided to title it with the terms man, meaning ‘whimsical’ and ga, meaning ‘picture’ – in other words; manga. While this was at the time no more than a coinage for a collection of pictures that have little to no resemblance of what we today know as manga, it is still highly likely that the ukiyo-e art form laid a significant foundation for the medium. Not only was ukiyo-e a “low” and kitsch-esque form of artistic expression active within the urban middle class of Japan’s last pre-20th century era, whose subsequent main distribution through woodblock prints made it more or less equivalent to comics – but also its embodied visual style of yamato-e carries notable similarities to that of manga with its, once again, clearly defined lines and contours and general lack of abstraction. Even practical resemblances of manga can be traced through the history of yamato-e; particularly in the form of the aforementioned narrative hand scroll, or emakimono, which consists of a series of pictures and accompanied texts that together tell a right-to-left chronological story.

Taking this particular context into consideration, the visuality of Princess Kaguya is given a very interesting meaning. It is from this perspective a callback to an artistic tradition that was in parallel with one of anime and manga’s founding art forms. What’s furthermore interesting about this is that, while ukiyo-e has, in a sense, lived on through anime and manga, the nanga tradition did not survive after the 19th century. This callback thus carries several layers of depth. On a surface level, it can be seen as a form of nanga revivalism; an attempt at shaking new life into this extinct art form by applying it to modern animation. On a deeper level, this revivalism can also be seen as an act of rebellion against the film’s own medium, by embracing an art form that was active alongside anime’s origin but ultimately got “left behind”. As such, the film’s deviation against anime’s conventions doesn’t just involve its incorporated abstraction, but also the historically contextual relationship between its own visual style and the medium’s origin. At the end of it all, we can conclude that The Tale of Princess Kaguya‘s visuality is more than just beauty; it is one that technically and contextually not only defies but challenges its own medium and the norms of its visual representation.

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