The Tale of Princess Kaguya

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece defending The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Now, having actually seen the movie, I feel obligated to discuss it in greater detail. I say that with both hesitation and excitement. Hesitation, since even director Isao Takahata’s “best” film to-date, Grave of the Fireflies, I respect more than I love, as his movies feel too distant to fully attach to. Excitement, since this was a passion-project in production for close to a decade, which piqued my curiosity. I can tell you, right off the bat, that it came as a shock to me once I realized that the film, though not one I’d call a masterpiece, would nonetheless be my pick for “best movie Isao Takahata’s ever made.”

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the tale of a mysterious girl and the relationship she has with her parents. Based on one of Japan’s oldest folktales, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, the story centers around a naïve-yet-well-intentioned bamboo cutter who discovers a baby girl inside a bamboo shoot. He takes her to his wife, whereupon the two discover that this baby is magical. She matures rapidly from baby, to child, to teenager, during which time all of her needs, from nourishment to clothing, are given to the couple like manna from heaven. Her growth attracts the attention of everyone around them, but it’s not enough for the bamboo cutter. He craves the best for his daughter, and so the family moves to the capital in an attempt to-much to the girl’s dismay-raise her like a true princess.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a Studio Ghibli production. The name carries so much clout, even outside of Japan, that expectations are high even for the studio’s minor works. Fortunately, it has, historically, almost constantly delivered in some shape or form, so it should be no surprise that this is yet another worthy entry in its library. What’s surprising is that it’s a fantasy movie from a director who specializes in realism and historical dramas. You’d think that, given his track-record, fantasy wouldn’t be his forte at all. Yet with this film, Takahata, whose last fantasy movie came out in 1968, has put out what is easily the finest film the studio has made since Spirited Away.

Let’s get the three, major “elephants in the room” out of the way. The first, and probably the least subjective, is the animation. The Tale of Princess Kaguya has been accused of being rough and unfinished artistically. I won’t go into detail rebuking that, but I simply don’t see the claim as valid. Animation, by its definition, implies fluidity and movement, two details this movie does indeed have. To say otherwise is being dishonest. Sure, it might not carry the usual markings of the studio’s style, being Sumi-e by design, but that doesn’t mean it’s “unfinished”. By that definition, most TV anime is “unfinished”, since there’s minimal movement in them due to budget constraints.

Not to mention, the bizarre, yet painterly, quality works in its favour. Unlike My Neighbors the Yamadas, which utilized the style in a comedic format, here it immerses the audience in its fantastical and often romanticized setting. We see the story develop through the title character’s, Kaguya, eyes, and she is as young and playful as she is sweet and sincere. Having that focus makes the art style not only crucial, but necessary. It’s like Ponyo looking like a pop-up book: the movie wouldn’t work without that.

Secondly, the length of the movie is, surprisingly, its biggest asset. Normally, when I go into an animated movie that’s over two hours, there’s a chance that it’ll drag and have needless filler to cover its runtime. This is especially the case with an anime movie, as those are purposely lengthy to create a slow-burning atmosphere. And given how much of a gamble this is with Isao Takahata, whose movies are always slow-burners, it was a genuine concern going in. It’s 137-minutes, after all.

Fortunately, it’s barely an issue. That’s not to say there aren’t moments that felt long, there were (it’s Isao Takahata,) but they were so few and far between that my usual habit of glancing at my watch during his movies wasn’t a concern. At best, maybe I shuffled in my seat a few times. At worst, I might’ve drifted off for a second or two. But to sit through a movie from a director I normally find somewhat boring and not feel bored? That’s an accomplishment on its own.

And finally, there’s the story. By way of comparison, fellow director Hayao Miyazaki’s movies have always taken advantage of their simple premises, relying on the content, or plotting, to carry everything. But while Miyazaki crams plenty of worthwhile moments, events, exchanges and even atmosphere to flesh out his stories, Takahata’s movies are often filled with “little bits of nothing”. Scenes like finding food, watching a display of transformations, family life and so on, while not inherently uninteresting, are dragged out and repeated so frequently I end up feeling drained or bored by the time his movies end. His films feel like they’d be that much tighter if he cut out much of the middle-section filler, and in that way not make them feel longer than they are.

Interestingly, however, this particular Takahata movie avoids those problems by having plenty of worthwhile content. At 2 hours and 17 minutes, lots of conversations, events, exchanges and atmosphere permeate an otherwise simple story. It can be a bit much, especially with everything that transpires, but it’s nice to see that Takahata has, perhaps a little late, acknowledged this issue. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is dense, and while it can feel overstuffed it’s also nice to see something with concrete, palatable and timeless substance for the first time since 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies.

And that’s where the movie surprised me. Even amongst die-hard Takahata fans, there’s a general understanding that the 79 year-old director peaked 26 years ago, with his body of work getting progressively worse since then. His last movie, 1999’s My Neighbors the Yamadas, I can’t even recommend as a rental because of how uninspired it is. So it’s great to see that the 14 years spent away from the director’s chair have given him time to show his narrative passions once more. That it doesn’t feel too overbearing is a nice change of pace too.

The focus of this movie is where it should be, with the title character. That’s not to say that the other characters have no depth, but Kaguya is the one who resonates. She has overbearing parents, for example, but it’s through her interactions with them that we see that they really only want what’s best. She has a childhood friend whom she clearly shows affection toward, but you wouldn’t understand why unless both are on screen. I’d have liked to see more focus on fleshing them out, but it’s not their story.

On a side note, I find that Kaguya is a mouthpiece for the movie’s subtext. She’s at her happiest when she’s her carefree, youthful self, and her saddest when forced to be princess-like. She can dance around a tree one minute, then slump away miserably the next once she’s reminded of her place. Even once she accepts her status in the upper-class, she still tries finding ways out, including playing to the pretentiousness of royalty with feigned and subtle innocence. In that sense, Kaguya is a critique of the unfair standards forced on children in Japan by their overbearing and strict parents and other mentors. These adults might think they’re doing what’s right for their youth by thrusting the responsibilities of life on them so dramatically, but in reality it’s only making them miserable. Takahata argues that kids are still kids, and should be allowed to have fun, a message and harsh truth that can apply to us in the West too.

I also found that everything else in the movie serves to compliment its themes. For example, while the animation is whimsical and carefree, the musical score, composed by longtime Miyazaki corroborator Joe Hisaishi, is surprisingly restrained and soft-keyed given the genre. Even the English dub, which falls victim to “Celebrity-itis”, is soft and fitting for such an eased-up tale, and complements it beautifully. The kid actors (yes, there are actual kid actors in this dub) are also appropriately matched to their parts. Perhaps the weak link is Chloe Grace Moretz as the title character, since her soft-spoken voice, though mostly effective, can’t reach the emotional high points Kaguya experiences from-time-to-time. Regardless, it’s a solid dub.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Tale of Princess Kaguya. It’s interesting how, in the span of a year, both of Studio Ghibli’s big kahunas have decided to make their last big hurrahs before retiring for good. The irony is that while Miyazaki, normally known for his wide-appeal, made a divisive and complicated finish with The Wind Rises, Takahata, normally the distant and cold one, has made a movie for everyone. That’s not to say it’s flawless, as it succumbs to needless bouts of melodrama in the third-act, or that I’d re-watch it frequently, but if it weren’t for The LEGO Movie I’d say this is the best animated movie I’ve seen all year. It doesn’t change my opinion of Takahata as a whole, but it’s enough to prove that I’ve misjudged him slightly. I can’t recommend this movie enough.


  1. I found your Ghibli retrospectives on ScrewAttack when I was doing a random web search, and while I don't always agree with you, I think we may be in agreement on one essential point: Takahata is, overall, a more flawed filmmaker than Miyazaki. While I was rather more charmed by Yamadas than you were, and hated Pom Poko a lot more than you did, I find myself nodding along with your words the vast majority of the time whenever you were discussing his films.

    Which brings me to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. I had the great privilege of watching this one in the theater [Japanese with English subtitles], and I loved it, for pretty much the same reasons as you. I haven't seen The Wind Rises yet, but setting that film aside, I'd agree that this is the best film Studio Ghibli has done since Spirited Away. And while it will take another viewing to be sure, I might just go further than you, and say that it has usurped Spirited Away's position in my list of top-five favorite Ghibli films.

    1. I wouldn't go as far to say it surpassed Spirited Away, but it was definitely a pleasant surprise considering my thoughts on Takahata as a whole.

      As for my preference of Pom Poko over My Neighbors the Yamadas? The former was frustrating, but I liked the ideas and passion/emotion present in the movie, and generally appreciated what it was attempting to be, bumps and all. The latter wasn't even a movie, it was a comedy skit that overstayed its welcome. Funny, but nothing that warranted a 100+ minute runtime.

      I should actually review The Wind Rises soon. Been meaning to for a while now anyway...

    2. Oh, my top-five list is just the list of which Ghibli films I personally enjoy the most. While it does contain films that I believe are among the company's very best, that's just how it coincidentally shook out. How much I enjoy a film, and how good I believe it is, are too separate things for me. They frequently correlate, but they sometimes don't. I do periodically watch movies that "so bad they're good", after all.

      Okay, I can respect that take on Pom Poko. Personally, however, I'm completely with JesuOtaku on this film. If you've seen her review, then you know my basic thoughts on Pom Poko.

      Yamadas did make an attempt -albeit a very scant one- at thematic unity with the message of "life has its ups and downs, but treasure it", but I won't deny that I was checking my watch at the hour mark. I think it should have been around 75 minutes, tops. That being said, I enjoyed it overall, regardless of its faults- I guess kind of the way you enjoyed Pom Poko, maybe.

      I should probably have mentioned, as regards Kaguya: I love the art-style to pieces, and the film wouldn't have been the same without it. I'm mystified by the complaints about it you've referenced, as everywhere I've turned before now, I saw it being praised.

    3. I saw her review, don't worry.

      Also, the artstyle complaints are there, but subtle. Kinda like the ones over Ponyo's art style, but more subtle because fewer people have seen this movie in particular. But they exist on YouTube and IMDb, so they're there.

      I also don't really enjoy Pom Poko as much as enjoy aspects of it. It's a solid 3/5 for me, a low rental. It's one of my least-favourites from the studio, with only My Neighbors the Yamadas and Tales from Earthsea trailing it for 2nd and 1st least-favourite respectively. But unlike them, I can't fail it because of its passion and raw energy...


Post a Comment

Popular Posts