0449 | Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya)


I’ve said on this blog before that I’m no connoisseur of feature-length animation or Studio Ghibli in fact co-founder Isao Takahata’s The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya is only the second Ghibli film I’ve watched but to my eyes the hand-drawn animation here is beautiful, as if the director has overseen the bringing to life of thousands of old Japanese paintings and sketches. Little wonder then that Takahata’s fable, which is based on the traditional folk tale The Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter, famously took over eight years to complete, though that long gestation period is not solely due to the animation work. Each frame is a mixture of bold black strokes and soft watercolours, deliberately left unfinished at the edges, while the old-fashioned visual style is complemented by a story that serves as a grand homage to traditionally-held values: an appreciation of nature, of life, the importance of being happy with your lot, friendship, honesty, the pleasure of working the land and even (eventually) obedience.

I’m well aware that translated animated films can often be let down by the dubbing actors, but the unlikely western performers who came together for this one work well: James Caan is the socially-ambitious Bamboo Cutter, Mary Steenburgen is his perceptive wife and Chloë Grace Moretz is Kaguya, who is initially found by the woodcutter in miniature form growing in a bamboo shoot. This magical creature continues to develop quickly, and her adoptive parents soon become aware that she is special, giving her the title of ‘princess’. She plays with the local kids, roaming free, and there are many cutaways showing the simple beauty of the natural world they inhabit: frogs leaping; swaying blades of long grass; a deer watching frolicking children. However Kaguya’s idyllic childhood ends abruptly when she is moved on to the city, and a life of courtiers, lessons in exemplary behaviour and stuffy pageantry. Such is the lot of someone who grows up too fast, the elderly writer-director sagely notes.

For the most part Takahata steers away from the usual fairy tale plot lines. Kaguya rejects all the men who come her way, and rightly so: she is smarter than them, even the Mikado (Dean Cain), and pines instead for childhood companion Sutemaru (Darren Criss); not for romantic reasons, exactly, but simply because Sutemaru was her companion when she was allowed to do all the things she loved. By rejecting a number of suitors Kaguya says no to a life of subservience and control, and she eventually has to confront her father on the issue, for it is he who is forcing her to walk this path in order to better his own standing in society; the lowly Bamboo Cutter has ideas above his station. It’s surprising, then, that Takahata includes a scene in which an upset Kaguya ponders whether she should have been more obedient and whether she should have gone along with all of her father’s wishes. Still, it’s just one mis-step in a film that otherwise has reasonably-solid feminist credentials, at least if you’re going to compare it with other older folk tales, in which a young woman’s pairing off with a male provider is usually of paramount importance. Following a rather spectacular interpretation of a raigō The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya ends on a bittersweet note, during which Takahata ruminates on the transitory nature of life. I found it surprisingly moving, and only at the end did I realise just how much I’d become attached to the main characters, particularly Kaguya herself.

Directed by: Isao Takahata.
Written by: Isao Takahata, Riko Sakaguchi. Based on the traditional story The Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter.
Starring: (Japanese version: Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii, Nobuko Miyamoto). Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Darren Criss, Lucy Liu.
Cinematography: Keisuke Nakamura.
Editing: Toshihiko Kojima.
Joe Hisaishi.
Running Time:
137 minutes.

Comments 10

  1. Mark Walker January 14, 2016

    I really want to see this, man. I’m a big admirer of Studio Ghibli but normally it’s only Miyazaki films I watch. This caught my eye a while back though. If you’ve not caught Miyazaki’s Spirited Away yet, I’d highly recommend that. It’s a near masterpiece of animation and a hugely imaginative adventure. Absolutely brilliant!

    • Stu January 15, 2016

      Miyazaki is where I need to brush up. I’ve only seen this and Grave of the Fireflies. I have The Wind Rises and Spirited Away at home so will watch them at some point. This one was really good…it largely confines the flights of fancy to the beginning and end. Can’t believe James Caan is in it!

      • Mark Walker January 15, 2016

        The Wind Rises is the only Miyazaki film I haven’t seen. I will eventually get to it but from I can gather, it’s not as fantastical as his other work. My Neighbour Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle are good stuff but Spirited Away is just genius!

  2. Tom January 15, 2016

    I have read so very little on this movie, and while anime is totally not my thing I’m curious about it. It’s nominated for an Oscar for best animated feature, is it not?

    • Stu January 15, 2016

      Yeah it was nominated last year but didn’t win; I enjoyed it but it’s one of those genres where I wouldn’t feel overly confident in terms of recommending things! I have no idea whether you’d like it or not, and from what I can gather it’s vastly different to the usual Ghibli stuff

      • Tom January 16, 2016

        I’ve slowly become won over by Studio Ghibli. I mean, you really can’t top them in terms of visual splendor. That said, I think story-wise they really need to be cast the right way for the characters to be believable. The most recent one I’ve seen is The Wind Rises and the American dubbed version distracted me quite a bit b/c of the people voicing the characters. It wasn’t a major issue but I totally was trying to nail down who was who in that film and that kind of took me out of the experience a lot. But if that’s the main issue I have with them, well that’s mighty fine with me

        • Stu January 16, 2016

          That’s true. It’s a key thing to get right and if there’s a subtitled version available with the original actors I tend to go for that…although subtitles on anime can sometimes be a bit problematic in themselves! I’ll try and watch more Ghibli this year. My other half is keen, so that’s always helpful.

  3. tinyredleaf November 29, 2018

    “By rejecting a number of suitors Kaguya says no to a life of subservience and control, and she eventually has to confront her father on the issue, for it is he who is forcing her to walk this path in order to better his own standing in society; the lowly Bamboo Cutter has ideas above his station.”

    I’m not sure if that is necessarily true. I note that you watched the film in English, so I don’t know if it’s because the English script chose to interpret Kaguya’s relationship with her father that way, but in the original Japanese, the father’s motives are not so clearly selfish or self-serving.

    While it’s true that Kaguya’s father never quite paid attention to what she truly desired, it’s also true he was driven by the belief that his adopted daughter was of noble blood, and that it was the Heavens’ wish that she be elevated to a comparable rank in the mortal realm. If it were truly the case that he was aiming only for his own advancement, he wouldn’t have been so forgiving towards Kaguya, despite her stubborn refusal to accept any of her aristocratic suitors, including the Mikado, the Emperor.

    So, to me, the lesson here is more a case of showing parents the folly of forcing their expectations on their children; a gentle reminder that the best love you can show your children is to allow and support them in doing their best in whatever they aim to be.

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