When I first saw Princess Kaguya in theaters last year, I was, for a good half-hour afterward, more or less a great, big puddle of tears. Good art has that effect on me. It leaves me at the behest of emotions far too great to be controlled, and far too complex and subtle to be labeled entirely “good” or “bad,” “positive” or “negative,” “happy” or “sad.” When I finish a masterful film or piece of music, I know I have experienced Something, Something that I may never be able to vocalize. This is probably fitting, since much of life is so completely personal as to be utterly beyond any form of expression or sharing.
On the third day of Nippon Connection this year I had the particular pleasure of seeing Kaguya on a big screen for the second time, an afternoon billing. Seeing a great film multiple times over the course of one’s life is an immensely beneficial exercise, not least because, the more you see or experience a work of art, the more you notice more and more of the smaller details, the finer touches. Such experiences become deeper and more fulfilling as a result, turning what could perhaps just be casual entertainment the first time around into a moment of intellectual and spiritual renewal by the 10th. The Legend of Princess Kaguya, I was pleased to confirm after a repeated viewing, will be no exception to this.
I already wrote a full review for the film last year during its normal theatrical release, so I will not revisit the entire film, but I would like to offer some more thoughts on one aspect I touched upon only briefly in my original review. Specifically, how this movie, despite its origin story being over a thousand years old, carries within it some powerful messages for our own societies regarding tolerance and social norms. Within the bounds of the story, this specifically relates to male/female gender roles, but they can just as easily be applied to the realms of race, ethnicity, religion, culture, sexuality, and others.
Let’s look at what really drives the plot- a father, raised in a specific culture, with specific norms and expectations for both men and women, is granted the gift of parenthood by the Heavens. He glimpses the greater Divine in this, but is never able to ride this stream to an awareness beyond his day-to-day life. As a result, he simply assumes that, because all he knows is a very specific ideal of what makes a “proper” father, and what the “true happiness” of a woman is, his desires for Kaguya must be what she desires, and he then simply does it, effectively forcing both Kaguya and his wife (who also, according to the customs she was raised with, relegates herself to a quiet, subservient role) to go along with it.
This deeply hurts Kaguya, but in ways that only slowly become clear. Denied her true friends and loves by her father, who is in the end merely a conduit for the larger social and political expectations he represents, she has to repress her own outgoing nature time and again. This makes her surly and unhappy, and ultimately leads to her withdrawing from others. The culmination of her pent up anger and energy is her lashing out at the suitors, challenging them to such an extreme degree that two end up financially ruined, one nearly dies at sea, and another actually dies in their efforts to satisfy her.
This leads her into a spiraling whirlwind of guilt- she is obviously not responsible for the chain of events and the acts of hubris that led to the suitor’s death, but because her pushing them was the immediate cause, and because the world around her says it is her own fault she refused its image of what she should be in the first place, she takes all of the blame and guilt upon herself, and falls into a depression. Even then, the pressures of society don’t let up. When even the highest human power in the land, the Emperor himself, comes to her and also says that she must give in to what others demand of her, the final dice is cast. She is forced into a place of such voiceless despair that she instinctively seeks the fastest way out, and leaves the world and her life behind forever. While I have no evidence to offer that either Takahata or the original writer of the tale intended for it to be a story about suicide, the parallels are rather uncanny. Kaguya is born into a world that holds a single image, a single, absolute ideal of what she should want, and what she should do, but that is so radically different from what she is that she literally can’t remain here.
The natural response to all this is to point out that the father does all this from a place of love- in a lesser film, he would be the irredeemable monster of an antagonist. We would only see the moments of him being gruff, or overbearing, or demanding, or angry, or purely selfish (in numerous scenes, it’s clear when he says “your happiness” to Kaguya, he clearly means “MY happiness”). But that’s not all there is to him, and we see that. His love for her is, at its core, as pure as Kaguya’s love of laughter. It shines through him when he looks at her.
But that is not enough. The road to Hell is, after all, paved with good intentions. And it’s when we look at Kaguya and her father side by side that we see the real depth of commentary in the film on the dangers of holding on too tightly to long-standing cultural or social norms. It is not just Kaguya who is ruined by the unattainable demands of society, it is her father and mother as well. Each of them have a purity in their souls that is caught in an inescapable spiral simply because they inhabit worlds where the society around them demands, incessantly and unceasingly, that they bend and wrap their love around artificial pillars of absolutes regarding how people, all kinds of people, “should” be. However, it is not the traditions or customs themselves that are damaging- there is no effort in the film to suggest that the acts Kaguya is forced to go through are, in and of themselves, bad- it is the slavishness with which people cling to them and take them for Truth that causes harm. It is not in having social norms that people get hurt, but rather in how we demand that others, ALL others, conform entirely to them, and then react with anger, offense, and even violence when they don’t.
In an era like ours, where movements for gender, racial, and sexual equality gain strength the world over, where true religious tolerance is being demanded in more and more nations, and where more people are daring to speak out against our old, arbitrary, one-or-the-other gender and sexual divides, this makes Princess Kaguya more than a mere fairy tale. It allows it to offer powerful insight into how a society can intentionally stifle some of the best and brightest in its midst, how clinging to some traditions without challenging or assessing them at arm’s length can hurt others far more than any deliberate act of malcontent could. It is this depth of possible interpretation that, more than anything else, elevate The Legend of Princess Kaguya to the level of truly great art, a creation both timeless and remarkably timely, a work that, I hope, will be remembered and talked about for generations to come.