Ben Pinsent takes a look back at the 2013 film release The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and explains why this little film is worth your time…
Studio Ghibli has been making films for just over 30 years, as of writing. However the studio is only really known for one name in particular, that of co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, and for good reason; Miyazaki has directed some of the best animated, nay some of best films of all time. While Miyazaki is a remarkable talent who will be sorely missed after his retirement from the studio in 2013 it is important that we recognise the other gifted individuals who provide the world with whimsy out of Studio Ghibli.
Many would point to Yoshifumi Kondo, director of the splendid Whisper of the Heart, (he was expected to be the new top director at Ghibli, but before he could fulfil that promise he suffered an aneurysm and died) or Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki, who directed Tales of Earthsea and From Up on Poppy Hill. However a name who should be held up with a similar regard as Miyazaki is Isao Takahata. The man is infamous for making one of the most emotionally powerful films ever made Grave of the Fire Flies and also some of the silliest Ghibli films like Pom Poko and My Neighbours the Yamadas. To finish their Ghibli Retrospective Norwich’s Cinema City choose The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and to be honest, I couldn’t have picked a better film to close out a look back at one the greatest animation studios working in the world today.
Released in 2013, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is based on the Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. While out in a bamboo grove an elderly bamboo cutter comes across a bamboo stalk that shines with a strange light. Out of the ground, in front of the glowing Bamboo stalk, a bamboo shoot sprouts and flowers in front of the bamboo cutter, revealing a tiny girl. He takes the girl home, where she turns into a baby to be raised by the elderly bamboo cutter and his wife. She grows quickly into a great beauty in the poor village and makes friends with the local children who call her little bamboo. However when her adoptive father finds gold and riches in the bamboo he cuts down he moves her to a palace to be a princess to make her happy. He tries to get her to marry princes and noblemen, but she rebuffs them all. Even the Emperor hears of her otherworldly beauty and tries to get her to be his wife but he is also denied. It is revealed that Kaguya is not of this earth but from the moon, and the moon people have decided to come and get her back. Despite the efforts of the Emperor and her parents, Kaguya returns to the moon, with the celestial beings, leaving her parents in tears.
There are a lot more details in this film that are important, but that is the bare bones of the most beautiful film I have seen in a long time. It is unfortunate to say, but it is the plot that is one of the most distracting features of the film. While for the most part the narrative is excellent, blending drama, emotion and humour perfectly in one incredible package, the film suffers from a fatal pacing problem; namely that the major reveal, that Kaguya is a courtier from the moon, comes at the end of the film. It kind of comes out of nowhere and suddenly concludes the film. I was watching with a friend who is familiar with Japanese folklore and she explained that there is a similar problem with the original story’s narrative, so I guess while not entirely the fault of the film which is an adaptation, it might have been nice for a bit more set up and a longer pay off. There are other narrative missteps that provide unfortunate implications, like one of Kaguya’s village friends who is ready to abandon his wife and child for her. But the fantastic opening three quarters of the film does more than enough to excuse the sudden reveal of Kaguya’s origin and her even more sudden need to return.
Perhaps most importantly the art work is stunning. Art director Kazuo Oga, gives the entire film the feeling that you are watching a story book come to life. Soft pencil lines define characters detailed with water colour subtlety. Each sequence of the film is an absolute wonder, and it left the theatre silent throughout as we were lucky enough to see such a fantastic and beautiful story being told with a gorgeous art style and obsessive eye for detail, though the film is not afraid to bend for a thematic necessity. Half way through the film while Kaguya is attending her nameday banquet she runs away and the animation style matches her mood; instead of the refined beauty the lines become thicker, harder and jagged. Gone is a quiet tranquillity, in its place a ferocious anger, bitter disappointment and fear. One of the stand out sequences in an already fantastic looking film.
The film has something very interesting to say about the nature of beauty and the role of women in Japan. Everything that the father does, moving her away from the place she was happiest, placing her under the tutelage of a finishing school to train her to be something she is not, with strange customs and rituals that include plucking eyebrows and blackening teeth, all in the name of Kaguya’s happiness. However each step leaves her more and more unhappy. Similarly when suitors come calling they say it would be her utmost happiness to marry them. Men seem to dictate her happiness, and in doing so cause her to want to return to the moon. Furthermore she is seen as an object, painting herself and concealing her true self. The suiters consider her a treasure they can add to their collection as a wife. She is kept in boxes away from the more interesting events, like a doll, only to be seen, never heard unless it is to play music. She fights against those traditional notions of nobility, claiming pleasure in the simpler things, like nature, laughter and occasionally struggle. Kaguya is a film which questions all these traditional ideas of femininity and beauty, and through their challenge the filmmakers draw an audience’s attention to our modern standards of beauty and cause us to check ourselves when watching Kaguya in the film.
To cut a long review short, the film is an absolute joy to watch start to almost finish, though even I found myself with dampening eyes when Kaguya left the world. If you have the opportunity to see it, do. It is a must see and confirmation that Ghibli has a life after Miyazaki in Isao Takahata and his team.
By Ben Pinsent