Review – The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (2013)

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The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a beautiful film from Studio Ghibli, but it isn’t standard Ghibli (i.e.: Miyazaki) fare.  Director Isao Takahata puts a stunning visual spin on this animated tale but slows the film’s pacing to a crawl by dwelling on those images a bit too long.

The story is based on a 10th century Japanese folk tale that’s usually referred to as The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.  In it, an old man finds a tiny child in a glowing stalk of bamboo.  He and his wife raise the rapidly growing child as their own, naming her Princess Kaguya because they think she must have been sent from heaven.  The old man finds a pile of gold nuggets in another glowing bamboo shoot and uses the money to move his family to the capital city (which I presume to be Edo).  Once there, he buys his way into high society and tries to make his daughter into the princess he thinks she’s meant to be.  Unfortunately, she was happy with her peasant friends and misses her life in the country.  When her true origins become evident, it’s much too late.

I’ve never seen an animated film like this one.  Every frame is a watercolor painting brought to life.  There are a few computer effects, but most of the wizardry is kept behind the scenes where it belongs.  The 2006 video game Okami attempts a similar visual style, but will less subtlety.  The character designs alone are breathtaking, rendering complex emotions with a few simple brushstrokes.  Director Isao Takahata, best known in the west for his emo masterpiece, Grave of the Fireflies, puts character first and uses the resources of Studio Ghibli to stunning results.

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I especially liked the the ways that Kaguya is shown to be in sync with the natural world.  She saves a grasshopper by placing it outside the family’s hut and mingles with a family of wild pigs early on, then later releases a caged bird and a tied-up cat when living in Edo.  The animals are animated beautifully, and I loved seeing the cat return later in the film with her new kittens.  These images effectively reinforce the idea that the princess has been artificially removed from her environment just like some of the animals she encounters.  They also help make Kaguya more likable and make us care about her fate.

All of the elements here work quite well.  The Japanese voice actors are perfect (I didn’t listen to the English track).  Sound design is also excellent, emphasizing the natural beauty of the country setting and the wealth of animal life that calls it home.

The mostly-traditional music is especially good.  The only time that Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi goes astray is when he attempts to introduce more modern instrumentation and chord progressions at a key plot point near the end.  I also disliked the pop song over the closing credits but that’s become de rigueur for modern animated fare, so I give it a pass.

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My only issue with the film is its consistently casual pace.  It feels overly long even to me, and I love Noh, Kabuki, and Japanese folk tales like this one.  It’s just that so many shots overstay their welcome, as if the filmmakers were so in love with their own work that they sometimes forgot that they were telling a story.  It doesn’t help that the original narrative is a bit convoluted to begin with.  As with many folk tales, this one meanders in such a way as to defy the standard three-act screenplay treatment.  Still, I think the film could have been helped by some judicious editing.

I’d have also enjoyed seeing a little more variety in the imagery.  The chosen format is gorgeous but it would have helped the story to have the capital city portrayed less organically.  Some of the shots were designed to mimic the perspective shown in ancient woodcuts, so perhaps the city could have been rendered in the more polished tones of the golden room dividers from aristocratic homes in Edo.

I previously reviewed Princess From the Moon, a 1987 live-action version of the same story.  I also felt that version to be laboriously slow so perhaps there’s something this gaijin is missing.  Overall, this is a classic tale that’s well-known in Japan and it’s received a very classy treatment from a talented group of filmmakers here.  Recommended, but don’t expect little ones to sit through it.

All images © 2013 Hatake Jimusho – GNDHDDTK