Review: Princess From the Moon (1987)

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The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is a Japanese folk tale that dates back to the 9th or 10th century. Princess From the Moon is a relatively faithful adaptation of this story but it deviates in some key ways to make the story more palatable to the audiences of 1987.  I won’t say any more about the original story but there is a Wikipedia entry HERE if you’d like to know more.  Just beware–if you think you might want to see the film, don’t read the wiki article yet because it’s filled with spoilers.

The story revolves around a poor bamboo cutter and his wife.  They normally derive their sustenance from the bamboo forest near their home, making and selling baskets and other bamboo items, but they’ve just lost their five year old daughter to disease and that tragedy has sapped the life out of them.  One day a huge crash is heard and the Earth shakes beneath their feet.  The man ventures into the forest to find an egg not unlike the ones in the Alien films.  It’s near his daughter’s grave and, surprisingly, it opens to reveal a human infant.  That infant grows into the couple’s five year old daughter, Kaya, in a matter of moments.  Her bright, blue eyes are the only visible difference between her and the original.

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All is well until two things happen.  First, the egg is discovered to be made of the purest gold and the family becomes wealthy overnight.  Second, Kaya suddenly warps into being a young woman.  Since both of these are difficult to explain to the neighbors, the family moves to a distant town.  Their new problem is that every young lord who sees Kaya falls for her and wants to marry her.  Even the emperor himself gets all hot and bothered, and he becomes even more intrigued when Kaya rebuffs his advances!

Kaya decides she will choose who to marry by sending her three suitors off on holy grail/golden fleece type quests.  The one who returns with the object of her desire will have her hand.  There’s much more, but my lips are sealed regarding the ending.

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Suffice it to say this is a very 80s production.  It reminded me of some of the fantasy movies I grew up on like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal.  Much like those, this hasn’t aged well, but it’s still a unique and entertaining movie.  Yes, there’s some synth music and an abundance of dodgy special effects.  Director Kon Ichikawa throws in lots of chops he obviously picked up while watching ET over and over.  The one thing he sadly didn’t pick up was a sense of pacing.  This film is very, very slow.  It felt to me like it could have easily been condensed from two hours to 90 minutes without losing a single story beat.  Every single moment is just milked to death with no sense of economy.

I kept watching when things got slow because the principal actors here are outstanding.  Toshiro Mifune as the bamboo cutter delivers a performance that I would have considered to be beyond him.  Sure, he’s great when it comes to rough and tumble chanbara characters, but the bamboo cutter is cut from a different cloth.  Mifune’s performance is amazing, generating the right blend of nouveau riche bravado and the humility of a poor farmer.

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Equally good is the beautiful Ayako Wakao as Tayoshime, the farmer’s wife.  Watching her in this, I can see why she never retired.  She continues to chew up scenery with the best of them.  Anyone who can keep up with Mifune onscreen at age 54 must have a wellspring of energy available to them.  I only wish she were wearing less traditional makeup in this so we could see her face better.  Oh well.

The other actors are very good as well.  It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen a film set in the Japanese court.  Some actors get swallowed whole by those elaborate costumes.  The costume design here is amazing but the actors find a way to shine through their wardrobes and become more than clothes hangers.

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The transfer I saw was relatively poor, so it might be unfair of me to critique the cinematography.  I’ve not seen any of the other 62 films shot by Setsuo Kobayashi but I’m looking forward to seeing his A Wife Confesses in the near future.  I can imagine that his work here was probably much better than what was on the glaring, grayed-out print I saw.  At the very least, his shot compositions were interesting if somewhat ineffective due to the pacing problems.

I genuinely wish this movie were edited more tightly.  I also wish it didn’t have a Peter Cetera song over the end credits, but that’s another story.  With a little nudging, this could have become a genuine classic.  As it is, it’s more of a novelty with a really good story.  Recommended, especially if you’re interested in Japanese folk tales.

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