The princess laughs and floats in sumi-e-brush sketches of faint pastel, a lush landscape that animated film director Isao Takahata has painstakingly depicted to relay his gentle message of faith in this world.
But his Oscar-nominated work stands as a stylistic challenge to Hollywood’s computer-graphics cartoons, where 3-D and other digital finesse dominate. Takahata says those terms with a little sarcastic cough.
The 79-year-old co-founder of Japan’s prestigious animator, Studio Ghibli, instead stuck to a hand-drawn look.
Edo-era woodblock-print artists like Hokusai understood Western-style perspective and the use of light, but they purposely chose to depict reality with lines, and in a flat way, with minimal shading, and that is at the heart of Japanese manga, or comics, Takahata said.
"We want to fuse the styles, the Japanese and the Western. To express things with a stroke of a line is Japanese tradition, but we do it with a proper understanding of dimension," he said in an interview at the picturesque Ghibli offices in suburban Tokyo.
"It is about the essence that’s behind the drawing. We want to express reality without an overly realistic depiction, and that’s about appealing to the human imagination."
"The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" is based on a Japanese folktale about an aging woodcutter and his wife, who find a girl in a bamboo stalk glowing in the dark. She grows up to be a beautiful princess, courted by rich samurai, mostly fakes, perverts and liars.
It’s a coming-of-age story, almost feminist in its tone. Princess Kaguya stands firm against the male advances.
It has a supernatural twist, an ending that’s part of the original. She turns out to be an extraterrestrial and returns to the moon, a symbol of death, in a canopy floating on clouds, surrounded by angels.
"All those are correct interpretations," Takahata says happily, a little professorial, when asked about the meanings behind his work.
Takahata has a soft spot for feminist themes. His past works have focused on strong female characters, including his 1970s Japanese TV series "Heidi, Girl of the Alps," based on the book by Swiss author Johanna Spyri.
Takahata, who also wrote the screenplay for "Kaguya," does not draw himself.
And so visually his works take many styles, from the doe-eyed portrayals typical of Japanese manga in the 1988 "Grave of the Fireflies," a powerful anti-war tear-jerker, to the oil-painting-inspired "Gauche the Cellist," a tasteful 1982 rendition of a classic by early 20th century poet-writer Kenji Miyazawa.
Although "Kaguya" is seen as a long shot in Oscar speculation, Takahata is flattered the work was nominated, as a team of people worked hard on it, he says.
Unlike Hayao Miyazaki, another Ghibli star and the 2003 Oscar winner for "Spirited Away," who dislikes traveling, Takahata will attend the Academy Awards ceremony Sunday.
Takahata confesses to an almost love-hate relationship with Miyazaki because their works are so different. He tries not to talk about Miyazaki’s works because he would have to be honest, and then he would end up getting critical. That would lead to conflict, when he respects Miyazaki, he said.
Daisuke Watanabe, a scholar and critic of film, characterized "Kaguya" as a masterpiece and a culmination of Takahata’s legacy and, in a larger sense, the seven-decade history of Japanese animation.
Japanese animation had its beginnings in those who wanted to create a studio like Disney’s, Watanabe said.
"The fact that this work has won a positive evaluation from the Academy, for an award bestowed by Hollywood, that place that created Disney, is so moving," he said.
Takahata has his mind set on his next work, a story about exploited girls, forced to work as nannies with infants strapped on their backs. Most lullabies in Japan were for such young women, crying out about their suffering, Takahata said.
All the stories he wants to tell, including "Kaguya," he said, urge everyone to live life to their fullest, not bogged down by petty concerns like money and prestige.
"This earth is a good place, not because there is eternity," he said. "All must come to an end in death. But in a cycle, repeated over and over, there will always be those who come after us."