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Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya)

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no Monogatari): Written by Isao Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi, directed by Isao Takahata.  Starring: Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii, and Nobuko Miyamoto.  Running Time: 137 minutes.  Based on the folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

Rating: 4/4

            I will not mince words- The Tale of Princess Kaguya is not only the best animated film I have yet seen this year, it is the best film overall I have seen this year, period.  Over the past two decades, animation has been increasingly oriented towards CGI and greater, more “realistic” details and colors, and in many ways this is a good thing- the visual depth seen in many recent animated films is, on a purely technical level, unlike anything that has come before.  But as a work like this one reminds us, when we neglect the older, simpler, less-visually-stuffed hand-drawn styles of the past, something is lost in the process.  An ability to capture so much of the elementary nature of our existence with so little becomes that much harder to cultivate and attain.  Roger Ebert once wrote, in his review of Princess Mononoke, that “Animation…is freed from gravity, and the chains of the possible.  Realistic films show the physical world; animation shows its essence.”  If he is right, and I would argue forcefully that he is, then The Tale of Princess Kaguya is an essential tale indeed, one that encompasses themes of growth, familial love, the joys of youth, the sweet nostalgic aches of aging, and the core sensations that make our lives worth living. 

            This is the first feature-length film in 14 years to be directed by Isao Takahata, who co-founded Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki back in 1985 (his last film, released in 1999, was My Neighbors the Yamadas).  It is currently slated to be the one of the last feature films produced by Studio Ghibli for some time (the only other one slated for an upcoming release is When Marnie Was There, which first aired in Japan this past summer), although rumors that the studio’s production arm is being shut down permanently seem to have been premature.  How fitting then, especially if it does end up being true, that this latest work of his will rank alongside Grave of the Fireflies (also by him) and Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke as one of the greatest films the company has ever released. 

            Based off of an old Japanese legend, we witness the story of a spirit of some sort that appears inside a bamboo stalk before a simple farmer.  Astonished, he takes the tiny creature back to his wife, where it turns into a bawling, rapidly-growing human baby right before their very eyes.  Soon afterwards, the farmer’s wife finds she has milk for her despite her advanced age (and what a miracle it is, to finally have a film that treats breast-feeding as something beautiful instead of shameful).  The girl’s subsequent growth is astonishing; in a single scene, she goes from imitating sounds, to hopping, crawling, and walking, all within a few minutes.  Much later on in our story she is given the name “Princess Kaguya” in a formal ceremony, but for the other children in their small, remote village, she is called “Little Bamboo,” because her rapid growth resembles that of the bamboo stalks in which she appeared.  To the elderly couple, overjoyed at suddenly finding themselves parents (after a fashion), she is quite simply, “the Princess.” 

            Despite her mysterious origins and astonishing growth spurts, she is in every other respect a perfectly normal child, content to run, swim, climb trees, steal fruit, and hunt down fowl for dinner alongside the village lads, singing nursery rhymes all the while about the simple beauties of life.  Her biggest partner-in-crime is a somewhat older boy named Sutemaru, but due to her growth spurts they are soon close enough in age to wonder about what else their relationship could become.  These moments, depicting reckless childhood fun in the countryside, will evoke a great deal of nostalgia for older viewers, remembering times their limbs were just as limber and their thirst for adventure just as unquenchable. 

            This all comes to an abrupt end for her when her father announces that they are moving to the Capital, so that the Princess can be raised as a proper Japanese noblewoman, with respect paid to all the normal traditions.  Strongly possessive of her ever since he found her, her father becomes only more convinced that this is the “true” reason she was sent to them, and despite Kaguya’s pleas (and sometimes the objections of the mother as well), he persists in pushing for them to live in a splendid castle, lessons in music and calligraphy, the restricted movements and laughter of a “proper lady,” and plucked eyebrows and heavy makeup; in short, everything that will make them fit in with the upper classes.  The attempted physical and behavioral makeover of Kaguya is accompanied by other traditions as well; a raucous party when she receives her first period (boys only, of course- she is kept in a side room so that no one sees her), and lines of suitors promising her that she is worth more to them than all the treasures of the earth (again, all without ever having seen her). 

            The animation style we see here is quite different from what most Ghibli fans would expect.  Instead of the sharp and clear lines between characters, objects, and backgrounds that Miyazaki and most of his colleagues employ, both the characters and backgrounds seem to have been etched out and colored with chalk, and the dividing lines done with charcoal pens.  The edges are not smooth, the colors not perfectly uniform.  The evenness of the lines between people and backgrounds blur when there is motion, and sometimes, there simply are not very many details on-screen in an image- faces could lack features, and backgrounds could swirl together.  The effect shifts between being dreamlike, and resembling old pieces of artwork strung together along a wall to tell a story.  It is difficult to put into words why this style, so simple and yet so passionately energetic, has the effect it does.  Suffice it to say that I cannot imagine this story being shown in any other form. 

            This film has powerfully reinforced my already-firm belief that animation is, in certain respects, the superior form of cinematic storytelling.  As the above quote from Roger Ebert points out, live-action films are always crucially limited by having to show things that are “real-“ real sets, trees, houses, people, clothing, animals, weather events, etc. etc.  The purpose of art, conversely, is to break down or transcend all the barriers that our physical surroundings impose on us.  We cannot physically walk across the surface of the sun and live, but in our minds we can, and in our art we can capture the feelings and sensations of such an experience.  Here, a simple shot of a red flower opening to the dawn, or a butterfly pulling itself out of its cocoon, or a breathtaking sequence underneath a cherry tree in full bloom, capture the elegance and beauty of our world better than any high-res photograph could- the side details are not to be found, because they are not needed.  The superficiality of the object’s physical appearance is stripped away, leaving behind the true nature of the subject at hand. 

            Although the film starts off as a tale of childhood magic, it crosses over into the realm of an epic fantasy by the end.  We know that Kaguya’s origins are supernatural, but answers as to exactly what she is are offered only in pieces.  The movie does not last much longer than two hours, yet we seem to traverse years in people’s lives and miles upon miles of the Earth.  There are traditional morality tales to tell as well, especially when Kaguya challenges her suitors to prove their love by actually finding the magnificent artifacts they compare her to.  Many of the characters need to learn these lessons just as much as we, the viewers, do. 

            Above all else though, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the story of a father and daughter, how their relationship grows and changes over time, and how both are hurt by the father’s stubborn insistence that his vision, his traditions, and his idea of proper happiness must also, quite naturally, be Kaguya’s as well.  Many may scoff at his simplemindedness, or criticize how old-fashioned he is, which is easy for us living in an age where no tradition, no old custom, is above ridicule, but tread carefully, dear reader, if you do so.  Yes, this conflict is here set within a particular time in Japanese history, but the central strife between the desires of the parent and the instincts of the child is truly timeless, bound to continue playing out for as long as humans exist.  There is no villain here- just people, living the only way they know how.  The father can be pig-headed, yes, but his simple, pure love for Kaguya shines through everything he does, and is heartbreaking in its intensity.  And what difference is there between Kaguya being compelled to pluck her eyebrows and move around only on her knees and Western women being compelled to force themselves into corsets, and to not aspire to being anything other than a housewife? 

            This film is a powerful rebuke to those who would claim that, when compared with modern animation technology, older hand-drawn styles no longer have a place in this world.  It looks like scratches and slight shadings compared to the overwhelming details in many of the year’s other great animated works, like The Lego Movie, The Boxtrolls, How To Train Your Dragon 2, and even the other major Ghibli release of the year, The Wind Rises.  It is not loud, and is only humorous in its effortlessly natural depiction of many of life’s little absurdities.  Its colors are subtle and light, and the only details on the characters or background are strictly that which is needed to differentiate one from the other.  The movement is, again, entirely natural, with none of the frenetic motion filling the edges in seemingly every other animated film (and increasingly many non-animated works) of the past few years. 

            And despite all that, or perhaps precisely because of it, The Tale of Princess Kaguya rises far above nearly all other films, large and small, that have been released this year.  Its story is a thousand-year-old legend in its home country, and this cinematic rendering of it is worth being remembered at least as long.  It is a rousing call to a life of fullness, of laughter, and of joy, that can somehow always find a reason to cast of the darkness that so easily weigh us down through the thousand-and-one cuts of daily living.  It recalls the things of beauty, pure and often painful in their intensity, that make humanity and human life, for all its tragedies and comedies, something truly awesome.  It is, in my opinion, the best film of this year, and of quite a few of the years preceding it. 

-Noah Franc 


  1. Aaron and I just watched this film last night (Aaron was slightly disappointed by it himself, but I'll let him explain). My response was overall positive, but muted; I didn't find myself as emotionally invested as I had hoped. That said, I do think the first 45 minutes of this movie (which chronicles her childhood) are among the best things I've seen at the movies in 2014. The specificity of infant movements, the joy and confusion of her parents, and the mocking humor of the children were all gorgeously and honestly rendered. I agree with you about the animation; I've never quite seen anything like it on the silver screen. I especially love that you allude to animation as essence; physical items becoming stripped of their tangible properties, their souls rendered through artistry. (I'm thinking especially of the dream sequence in which Kaguya flees her palace life, as walls give way to her headlong desire for liberation). But I started to lose interest in the scenes at the mansion--here the story becomes very predictable and familiar, even redundant. Takahata really draws out the scenes of suitors questing for legendary talismans (we get two nearly identical scenes of falsely presented items for some reason). I really think the film would have benefited from some script trimming, with more information presented through animation than dialogue, especially for a film as well-animated as this one. And I really noticed the running time; I think it's because there's little tension when you know where the story's going. I don't mean to harp on the negative, but I just wanted to explain why I wasn't as captivated by the entire film as you were.

    All that said, I think I really fell in love with the beginning and ending of the film. There are things from this movie I will never forget (the dream sequence in which she flies with Sutemaru, the moon-people procession). Considering it was my most anticipated film of the year after Inherent Vice, I guess you could say I'm a little disappointed (but emphasis on "little").

    Ultimately I quite liked it, but I'd personally rank it below other Ghibli classics like Mononoke, Spirited Away, and My Neighbor Totoro.

  2. I can see what you mean with the middle of the film, however I do think it bears reminding that this is an old epic legend that the movie is based off of, and someone who is familiar with the original tale informed me that the suitors are a major part of the original story as well, collectively representing a moral about promising beyond your means (and also pushing other to dangerous extremes for your own amusement). Remember, a lot of the story archetypes we are so familiar with started off in legends like this, so I don't feel I could necessarily fault the film for sticking to it in terms of providing a faithful adaptation.

    Additionally, I felt that that aspect of the movie is a key part of the emotional growth (or perhaps regression, depending on your point of view) of Kaguya herself. The move to the city, her separation from her friends, and the strictures of traditional society placed on her have worn her down and dimmed her previously ebullient laugh, making her cold-hearted and haughty, and she challenges the suitors for the express purpose of enjoying how hard they fail.

    And at first, she gleefully enjoys seeing them suffer. Then, one actually almost wins her over, and she starts to feel unsure of herself. Finally, one dies, and she is horrified at how far she has strayed from who she used to be. It is because of this that she later shuns all outside contact and even refused the invitation of the emperor himself. I feel it was a way to give her a lot more complexity as a character than she'd had earlier.

    I never minded that the story was not the most original because of how well the music and animation create a continuous experience that I never wanted to leave. I think we've become rather jaded in our time. We expect everything based on a fairytale or legend to find some way to deconstruct or subvert itself. We've forgotten the simple joys and basic truths that can be found by experiencing an old story straightforward, honestly, and earnestly. And that is, I think, part of the beauty of Princess Kaguya. Like with animation, it is a return to the essence of a tale that encompasses many of the simplest truths life has to offer.

  3. I completely respect that Takahata and his fellow screenwriters were probably trying to be as faithful as possible to the old folktale. That said, I don't judge any film based on faithfulness to its source material; a great film should stand on its own. I've heard the latest 50 Shades of Grey movie retains the dialogue/situations of the original novel, but that doesn't make it a great film. I don't necessarily think Kaguya had to be more subversive for me to enjoy it more; but the familiar story and fatalism of the narrative keep me from praising the film emphatically.

    You say she "challenges the suitors for the express purpose of enjoying how hard they fall," but I don't think she puts out the challenge thinking the suitors will ACTUALLY attempt it. As other characters point out, some of the objects mentioned are legendary and may not even exist. That moment to me reads more like Kaguya expressing her dissatisfaction with being a prize to be won, sending them a message that she's just as inattainable as the objects described. And indeed, the suitors seem to leave in a huff. It's only later when the suitors actually try acquiring the items (or faking it) where her decision begins to haunt her (including the tragic scene where the one suitor falls to his death). I agree it does make her more of an interesting character, in that she blames herself so much for what began as a facetious, off-hand challenge. But I don't know if I agree that she "gleefully enjoys seeing them suffer." The only one who really suffers is the man who dies, and we're agreed that she doesn't rejoice at the news. Everyone else is made to seem foolish; she laughs at them for their poor attempts at faking their accomplishments, but I'd hardly call it sadism. I don't think Kaguya is capable of that much negative feeling (except against herself, perhaps). Would it have made her an even more interesting character? I'm not sure.

    I apologize if it seems like I'm criticizing a film I really did appreciate overall. I just think that films like Totoro, Spirited Away, and Mononoke feel fresh while also drawing upon older mythology.

  4. Really? 50 Shades is the comparison we're going for? :P

    I am not disagreeing with you that a film has to stand on its own. However, it is fair when discussing an adaptation to say that something is in the adaptation as an effort to stay true to the source material. Like Thor having his hammer. It would be a strange adaptation indeed that did not have it.

    I'm not calling it sadism either! Far from it! I may have phrased that poorly. What I meant was that both the challenge (and the undeniable glee she takes in the initial failures- she DOES laugh pretty hard at the first two) are signs of both immaturity and a latent frustration at being treated by society like an object. And that's where, I feel, the diversion with the suitors serves its purpose of making her a character with far more depth than we might previously have thought.

    Plus, it is the culmination of the ruckus caused by the downfall of the suitors that attracts the attention of the Emperor himself, which leads to Kaguya making her fateful decision to return "home," revealing her origins, which is what kicks in the fantasy element of the last segment. And that last part is the full circle that makes the story function, in certain ways, on the level of a Greek tragedy.

    For me, this movie was refreshing in how it completely bucks all the trends of recent animation- most animated movies are loud, staggeringly detailed in their designs and animation, and very fast-paced. Kaguya's art style is incredibly basic, almost minimalist at times. It is slow, meditative, and often more of a mood piece than an active story. The plot moves at a quiet, gentle pace, allowing time for small diversions and character moments. For me, that made it a breath of fresh air.