Movie Review: The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Kaguyahime no monogatari)
Within the last year, much of the world was thrown into shock by two major announcements. One was the (supposed) retiring of Studio Ghibli co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki. The other shock came when rumor spread that the famed studio he was a part of, would most likely shut down…however, still continue to do small animated projects for Miyazaki’s Ghibli Museum, located in Tokyo.
However, buried within much of the back-and-forth of the internet, was the information that Ghibli‘s other co-founder, Isao Takahata, was releasing his first animated feature in over 14 years: The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Kaguyahime no monogatari). The film saw release in Japan during the Fall of 2013, and has just reached American shores, as of October, 2014, for a limited theatrical release.
Of the directorial co-founders, Takahata is a less constant than Miyazaki. Since the founding of the studio in 1985, he has only made 5 feature films, including Kaguya. However, each time he releases a film, each one tends to be something special in its own right. Many highly praised his 1988 film Grave of the Fireflies, and one that I found myself appreciating very much ,was his 1991 release, Only Yesterday (of which I discussed in one of my postings here ).
The story of Princess Kaguya, is based on the 10th century Japanese folktale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Though often changed over the centuries, the central storyline consists of a man who finds a baby within a bamboo stalk. As he and his wife were childless, they happily welcomed the little babe into their lives. As the man cut down more bamboo trees, he found riches within them, and took this as a sign that the girl was a Princess. And thus, decided that she must be raised as one.
Takahata keeps much of the tale’s origin woven into his own tapestry on-screen, but does add his own embellishments to the story. He develops a number of characters within the tale, as well as adds his own.
Kaguya herself is a wonderful character within the film, one who seems to thrive amid the country where she is born into, as well as in the company of a gang of village children who live near her parents’ hut.
This is highly contrasted when she is to begin her life within the confined walls of the city, as her father wishes. At first, being in this new and exciting world is fun to the Princess, but she soon longs for the tranquility she grew up in. We see her find little pockets of happiness here and there, but there are times when she seems to quietly find herself wondering about things. In a weird way, Princess Kaguya almost reminded me of another famous humble beginnings film character. I speak of course, of Charles Foster Kane, from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
I can see some possibly taking issue with Kaguya’s placement in this society, but one must remember, it’s not a world that is being run through with modern-day popular-culture or the ‘girl-power’ of films like Brave or Frozen. It shows the sometimes sad realities and sometimes ridiculousness of some past traditions. There does come a moment where Kaguya balks at having her eyebrows plucked and blackening her teeth as part of a traditional dressing, but does so out of obligation to her parents. One gets the impression that she feels an obligation and a familial love towards them, but she is also wrestling with her inner emotions…and possibly, something else?
With his 2000 release My Neighbors the Yamadas, Takahata sought to emulate a style similar to the comic strip the film was based on, giving that film a sketchy, watercolor feel. Kaguya almost captures the same feeling, but moreso in a historical context. Much of the style and characters take their cues from the Edo period of Japanese culture and art, though ‘simplified’ into a world of white backgrounds, watercolor, and pencil lines.
Even still, the character of Kaguya is drawn differently from the others, looking more like a modern-day depiction of a woman than the Edo style of the 17th century. There’s a great contrast played up when she is put next to Lady Sagami, who is her tutor in how to properly be a Princess (as seen in the image below).
Much like Miyazaki, Takahata seems to find a way to bring nature into his film, setting it up with a contrast at times to the modern city (of the time). Much like how the world seems to ‘breathe’ in natural beauty, Kaguya almost does the same. Her youth becomes one of fun memories, and her yearnings for return to that past world, keeps coming back to her, often in emotional ways that seemed to seep into the audience around me.
Unlike most filmmakers, Takahata chooses a different composer for each of his films. This time, the honor falls to Jo Hisaishi, Miyazaki’s musical collaborator. And just as can be expected, Jo doesn’t disappoint. Traditional instruments are used in a number of pieces, but much like the Princess herself, Hisashi’s score finds itself hitting a number of emotional areas. In one scene, he utilizes strings with a striking of the piano keys, to get down a major moment for the Princess. And in an interesting contrast, a celebration theme is almost cause for the opposite of the moment. I’ve yet to hear a Hisaishi score I didn’t like, and this is one that fans should pick up, if they haven’t yet.
Watching the flow of the characters on many unfinished backgrounds, put me in mind of another release from the previous year, the French animated film, Ernest and Celestine. Both are wonderful adaptations of some interesting source material, and the simplicity of their art is the kind of thing that I could see inspiring many to pick up a pencil. heck, I kept watching the flow of Kaguya’s hair, just admiring the line work.
Every year, I always hope for one animated feature to rip my heart out, as well as find a film that is incredibly good, but that the general public will never really embrace. This year, I’m surprised (and happy) to say, that both of those distinctions, are melded into The Tale of Princess Kaguya. There’s probably another 500 words I could have put down about the film, but I had to stop myself.
Though Takahata has not said anything about retirement, one has to assume that given his age (79, 6 years older than Miyazaki!), that this might just be his swan-song: a story from his country, brought to life in a flurry of pencil, watercolor, and emotion. The Wind Rises was moreso like Miyazaki (in the spirt of that film’s lead), holding his head high, and walking stoically into the sunset. With Princess Kaguya, Takahata is willing to show (or remind) us that even if he may not have had his head in the clouds like his friend, he still managed to be both grounded at times, yet emotionally appealing, in ways that not many may comprehend. One can only hope that maybe, those that are touched by his latest film, might be able to seek out his other works, and see what they’re missing.*
*Blogger’s note: Isao Takahata’s film “Only Yesterday” is not available in the United States.