If any animation house has the chops to tackle a 10th-century Japanese fable about an otherworldly young woman who mysteriously pops up inside the stalk of a bamboo plant, it is Studio Ghibli. The makers of the acclaimed “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle” and other fanciful features are more than up to the task with “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” a gorgeous, magical and melancholy fantasia about the joy and pain of human existence.
The art — hand-drawn, of course — is lyrical, with the look of a pencil-and- watercolor sketch. The story, about a beautiful but alien creature who grows up to break hearts, including her own, is poignant. If there’s a flaw, it’s that the story is overly long. At 2 1 / 4 hours, it feels like an epic, though its subject matter is gossamer-thin.
Based on the Japanese folktale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” “Princess Kaguya” centers on a pretty young woman discovered inside a sprouting bamboo plant by a childless couple. Originally the size of a mouse, yet fully developed, Kaguya (or Li’l Bamboo, as she is affectionately known) quickly grows to normal size, developing a friendship with a handsome country boy. But the bamboo cutter, who also has chanced upon a cache of gold, decides to raise his adoptive daughter as a princess, hoping to marry her off to some member of the aristocracy whom she doesn’t love.
As with any cartoon princess — even a 10th-century one — this doesn’t sit well. But if you think that “Princess Kaguya” is a story about girl power or true love triumphing over an arranged marriage, think again. The story, in which five high-born suitors must attempt to retrieve impossible objects before Kaguya will even consider their proposals, is dark and involves the death of one of her swains. This is a movie that’s made more for grown-up tastes and expectations than for little girls running around the house dressed up like Disney princesses.
That said, the movie is being offered in both a subtitled, Japanese-language version in the evening and a more family-friendly English-dubbed version during the day, with Chloë Grace Moretz and Darren Criss providing the voices of the princess and her rustic beau.
Directed and co-written by Isao Takahata (“Grave of the Fireflies”), the film may have no conventional happily-ever-after ending, but it’s more deeply satisfying and complex than similar, Hollywood-produced fare — like fine wine compared with Kool-Aid.
★ ★ ★ ½
PG. At Angelika Film Center Mosaic and Regal Gallery Place Stadium 14. Contains non-sexual nudity, mature thematic material and mild violence. 137 minutes.