Ani-NO: Defending The Tale of Princess Kaguya

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a movie I’ve been interested in for some time. Ever since it was first announced in late-2012, it’s been on my curiosity list. There were several reasons why, but the main one was that it signalled a last-hurrah from Isao Takahata, a man I respect more than I admire, after a 15 year absence from the director’s chair, and I was curious to see what kind of bang he’d go out with. Also, the movie gathered accolades at TIFF, and since TIFF is always at an awkward time of the year I was eager to see what all the buzz was.

Needless to say, the English dub trailer enhanced my anticipation:

Courtesy of MOVIECLIPS Trailers.

My initial reaction was obvious: it’s beautiful. The artwork reminds me of Okami. This was in production for 8 years?! Man, it was worth it! Congratulations, Takahata-san, you’ve won me over. Now to buy the tickets…

Yes, this is one purdy-looking film! Sadly, not everyone felt that way:
“Would not pay a cent to watch it in cinema. Chibli has gone for me forever if they draw smth like this. . .what a shame! After 30 years of great movies to watch this. . .miscarriage!”
“What shitty graphics. Looks like it was drawn by a ten year old.”
“The art turns me off, I wish they make a remake with better art.”
This is only the response on YouTube, by the way. I haven’t even shown you other sites. Regardless, there appears to be a sentiment, small as it may be, that The Tale of Princess Kaguya looks like garbage. Its design is bare-bones. Its character models childish. How it was approved as a Studio Ghibli movie is anyone’s guess! The claims are so extreme that they raise a red flag of similarity, as if I’ve heard them before. And I have, and it was a movie made, surprisingly, by the studio’s other founding member:

Yes, I went there.

Ponyo was a Studio Ghibli movie from director Hayao Miyazaki, as you’re no doubt aware. Despite its beautiful animation and well-crafted story, the film gained its status as love-it-or-hate-it amongst Western anime fans. The complaints for why are vast, but one of the most commonly-heard is that the animation “looks like crap”. And, once again, I don’t get it: how does the movie look like crap? I thought it looked amazing, with its intricate attention to detail, its childlike simplicity, even its decision to break from Miyazaki’s usual style and strive for something out of a children’s pop-up book. This is class-A animation, what gives?!

We all know what my thoughts are on Ponyo by now, so I won’t repeat myself. Instead, let’s see what these two movies, that and Takahata’s latest, have in-common. After all, the complaints are prevalent for both, so it’s only fair!

Here goes:

Ponyo is a movie about a boy who discovers a fish. He takes it as a pet, but the fish’s father reclaims her as his own. But the fish wants to be with the boy, so she turns into a girl, leaves the ocean and runs to said boy, causing a massive flood in the process. It ends up being the responsibility of the father and his wife to make the fish-turned-girl happy while simultaneously fixing the ocean.

In contrast, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a movie about a bamboo cutter who finds a mysterious baby inside a stalk of bamboo. The baby grows at an alarming rate, eventually attracting the attention of the Empress of Japan. But this child, somehow, offends her, so she’s forced to flee for her life while simultaneously fixing her mistake.

Hmm, not the correlation I was looking for. Let’s keep going.

Ponyo was directed by Hayao Miyazaki, one of the co-founders of Studio Ghibli. The Tale of Princess Kaguya was directed by Isao Takahata, one of the other co-founders of Studio Ghibli.

Still not what I was looking for.

Ponyo, despite its warm reception, has gained criticism over the years for not being up-to-snuff with Miyazaki’s best artistically. The Tale of Princess Kaguya, despite its warm reception, has gained criticism as of late for not being up-to-snuff with Takahata’s best artistically.

I think I’m getting warmer.

The most-common complaint for Ponyo is that “the animation is bad”. The most-common complaint for The Tale of Princess Kaguya, going by its trailer, is that “the animation is bad”. In both cases, the complaints are used to justify why the movie is awful.

We got a winner!

Anyway, the issue with this claim is that, simply put, it’s unfounded. Ponyo utilized traditional cel animation to convey its childlike visuals, while The Tale of Princess Kaguya utilized a Sumi-e style of animation to convey its painterly, ancient and fairy-tale style of story-telling. To further understand Sumi-e, it’s a Japanese-style of watercolour painting meant to convey a simplistic beauty that feels oriental. For other examples of this art-style in action, see the 2006 video game Okami, the two-parter focusing on Avatar Wan in Book 2 of Avatar: The Legend of Korra and, to a lesser-extent, the 1998 Disney movie Mulan. In other words, Sumi-e is an ancient and respected form of painting, and chastising it for being different than the typical style of animation is-

I think I’ve figured it out. And to that, I say: REALLY?!

This is a movie most of us in the West haven’t seen, meaning we don’t know what it’s about. We don’t know if it’ll be good or bad, or even if it’s worth seeing. For all we know, it could be one of the greatest movies ever! (Or worst, we don’t know yet.) But we’re letting our pre-conceived biases about an art-style we’re not familiar with, one that we’ve yet to see in context of the movie, cloud our judgement because we think it looks bad…

Has it really come to this? Have we become this dense, this stupid, this ignorant, that we’d let a perfectly good experience go by because its art-style is dumb? And not even that it’s dumb, that we THINK it’s dumb. Is this what we want? Because it’s not what I want!


You know what’s the worst part? We’re being judgemental because Takahata is trying something new. He’s taking a risk, not doing the same shtick as before. Far too often, we complain about anime being too same-y and generic, with little variety amongst all the “Moe, slice-of-life nonsense” that permeates the industry. Even in Studio Ghibli, which we champion as being the buckers of that genericness, I find that their movies, which are good, are stuck to the same, rigid-looking art-style. A high-end, beautiful-looking art-style, but tell me there’s a drastic difference between The Secret World of Arrietty and From Up On Poppy Hill in overall presentation.

So when movies like Ponyo, like The Tale of Princess Kaguya, come along and change it up, make for a new style, are-essentially-different, and then we turn around and call them dumb, you know what we’re doing? We’re being hypocritical. We’re sucking and blowing at the same time. We’re playing to double-standards. We’re being dumb ourselves, in other words. And, to quote Sonic the Hedgehog himself, “That’s no good!”

And that’s what bothers me: a rejection of quality based on aesthetic appeal. Say what you will about The Tale of Princess Kaguya as a movie, I’ve yet to see it. For all I know, it could end up horrid! But I’ll know that, even if it’s bad, the art-style is at least pretty and interesting, as opposed to being generic and uninspired like so many people are claiming. And that, at the least, is worth something, honestly.

Now then, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll watch that trailer again…


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