Japanese Title: Kaguya-hime no Monogatari
Watched in: Japanese & English
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Length: 2 hr. 17 min. movie
- Masterful artwork.
- Simple, yet has depth.
- Employs surprising subtlety.
- Folktale simplicity does limit character attachment.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya was the final film directed by the late Isao Takahata, the other half of Studio Ghibli’s directorial excellence alongside Hayao Miyazaki. Takahata tended to direct the studio’s more realistic works, such as Only Yesterday and the best-film-I-never-want-to-watch-again Grave of the Fireflies. I found it unusual for him to be at the helm of this project based on the Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The departure from his comfort zone isn’t cause for concern however, for he executed this film brilliantly with a unique art style that makes the subtle story leap off the page.
We start with a bamboo cutter at work in the forest. To his astonishment, he finds a little girl growing inside a bamboo shoot and takes her home to his wife. They take the girl in as their own, but it is clear this is no ordinary child, one they believe is a blessing sent from heaven. She grows at an alarming rate.
Another blessing lands before the cutter when he finds a mound of gold inside a bamboo tree. This convinces him that she must be a princess. And a princess must live like royalty, so he tears up their mountainside roots and takes her to the capital. He gives Kaguya everything to make her happy – a mansion, the finest clothes, servants, the best teacher in etiquette, and dozens of suitors after her hand in marriage. Nothing is too much for his princess. But did he ever ask if she wanted any of this?
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is most effective in its combination of art and sticking to the folktale narrative. The art is beautiful, so beautiful. Even if you aren’t a fan of folktale stories due to their simplicity, Kaguya is worth it for the imagery. The style recalls old Japanese paintings (see below for one from The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, 17th century), though modernised a little to work better in motion. Studio Ghibli managed to make the art look traditional and have such texture (one can feel the “paper”) that you could believe they had taken some 17th century artist’s sketchbook and simply animated it.
This art is a great example of the “less is more” concept for the visual side of storytelling. They could have easily used effects to add more stars in the sky and atmospheric lighting, which I am sure would have still looked fine, but the restraint to exclude many modern techniques makes it special.
Narratively, Kaguya has similar restraint. It reminds of Western fairy tales, where the purpose isn’t to explain every detail or fantasy element. Why is Sleeping Beauty to die from a spinning wheel and not a sword? Where did Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother come from? It doesn’t matter. The tale is about a simple character in a simple story with a simple message.
You have to watch Kaguya with the same mentality, which is where I think some people may not be interested. Fairy tale simplicity isn’t for everyone. I love Disney’s adaptations of fairy tales, so Kaguya was great for me. (Funnily enough, I don’t enjoy reading these same fairy tales because without the visuals and style, I find them too shallow.)
What made this tale so interesting to me was its sadness. Frankly, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is rather depressing. We see her father seduced by greed, yet still believing he’s doing everything for her. He deems the villagers they lived with as beneath them (reminds me of Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens – recommend the TV series). Kaguya doesn’t want her eyebrows removed and teeth blackened like other noblewomen, yet she also doesn’t want to disappoint her family. Outside of the humour with the five buffoons that call themselves princes, professing how much they will worship her and how rare of a treasure she is, I find little happiness here. Then again, perhaps that’s just me. Even when she meets one of her old village friends again and has a moment of freedom, it just made me sadder because I knew how fleeting it would be.
And the ending…well, I leave that for you to experience.
Art – Very High
The Tale of Princess Kaguya’s art is both stunning and unique. To change the style would mean to lose more than just the art.
Sound – Very High
The dub is perfectly fine and the performances by Kaguya’s parents are particularly emotive. However, go with the original Japanese to get the full experience of all the formalities and uncomfortable elements of the period. Also, Kaguya’s voice matures better with the character’s arc in Japanese. Nice in-world music.
Story – High
A bamboo cutter finds a girl inside a bamboo shoot and wants to give her the world, not realising that the world is too much for a little girl. This simple folktale uses subtlety to evoke great emotion in the reader.
Overall Quality – Very High
Recommendation: Watch it. Despite the pastel art, I recommend The Tale of Princess Kaguya more to adults than to kids. The emotional subtlety is rewarding.
Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)