Go ’round, come ’round, distant time,
Come ’round, oh, distant time,
Come ’round call back the heart,
Come ’round call back the heart
Birds, bugs, beasts, grass, flowers, and trees,
Teach people how to feel,
If I hear that you pine for me,
I will want to return to you,
I will want to return to you
Fifty-five years in the making and eight in development, The Tale 0f the Princess Kaguya is Isao Takahata’s indescribably beautiful finale, the epilogue of a career spanning over half a century. Boasting a more than two-hour run-time and characteristic dreamlike narrative progression, Princess Kaguya may be a watercolored fairy tale too grandiose for some audiences but it is nonetheless one of Takahata’s most skillful works.
Takahata was co-founder of Studio Ghibli alongside Hayao Miyazaki. Without Takahata, there would be no Ghibli since he was the one to discover Miyazaki’s talent as an animator and brought the team together. Though he’s an integral part of Studio Ghibli, he’s played second fiddle to Miyazaki because of his more culturally specific films. What do I mean?
Miyazaki’s films are more accessible to a broader audience, in my assessment because of their inclusion of Western elements with Eastern presentation (minus Mononoke). The Ghibli films from Takahata are five: Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and Princess Kaguya. Consider that every single one of them is set in Japan and heavily relies on Japanese identity, practice, religion, family life, folklore and legend which would be unfamiliar or even alienating to most Western audiences. I think this also explains why we had to wait a quarter of a century for an English dub for Only Yesterday.
So that accounts for why Takahata’s work isn’t as famous as Miyazaki’s but does that mean his films aren’t as good? Miyazaki is of course a magical director but watching all of these Ghibli films in order as I recently have, I’ve found that Takahata’s work seems more specific, more pointed, and more revelatory of the Japanese way of thinking.
Perhaps that worldview is clearest in Princess Kaguya. It’s a suitable finale: touching, reflective, even tragic. But it lays its weight upon a distinctly Japanese consideration, that being the brevity of life. The nationally celebrated viewing of the cherry blossoms in all of their temporal glory is testament to this, and no wonder it plays into the film as well. Unlike Western culture (I can speak at least for America), the Japanese seem to have embraced their mortality philosophically and even seem to perceive a kind of beauty in it, something which is utterly alien to the plastic, cosmetic, consumeristic culture of America where we think we’ll live for ever, where we put the elderly away to forget about them, where age is considered a flaw and an insult, not a natural ascent into wisdom.
The way in which Princess Kaguya tackles this rather heavy subject of life’s evanescence is through the life of its protagonist and the orchestrations of her earthly parents. The story follows 10th century Tale of the Bamboo Cutter folklore fairly closely. How fitting for Takahata’s last film as director, after so long a career, that he would choose to adapt the oldest Japanese prose in existence.
One day in a bamboo forest, an old man discovers a strange bamboo shoot growing out of the ground, glistening with a bright light. Inside of the shoot is a tiny girl resplendent and glistening. The old man believes her to be divine. Taking the girl back to his wife in the palms of his hands, the old man and woman are shocked when the miniature girl transforms into a human baby, growing faster and faster by the minute until she is able to crawl, then walk, then talk and so on.
The girl continues growing quickly and in the woodland village, the other children take to calling her “Little Bamboo” as a nickname. She grows so fast, just like a bamboo stalk. She becomes friends with the other children and becomes close with one of the village boys named Sutemaru. Though life is hard among the poor and simple people of the woodland, Little Bamboo is happy.
But the old man soon discovers nuggets of gold and fine clothing befitting a princess when chopping down bamboo in the forest. He comes to the conclusion that these wealthy tokens are gifts from heaven and that it is the divine will for him to use the gold and the raiment to make his little girl a true princess. He heads off to the city to build a gorgeous mansion.
Meanwhile, Little Bamboo is playing in the forest. She and her companions gather food for a banquet but when she returns home, she finds that the old man and woman are dressed for a journey. They are going to the mansion in the city to live there and they will never return. With a heavy heart, Little Bamboo leaves her friends behind to the assume the mantle of Princess Kaguya, a figure of austere nobility persecuted by arrogant suitors and joyless ritual. A haunting dread begins to encroach upon her, encapsulated in a nursery rhyme.
If you’re familiar with the original folklore, you know how it ends. I’ll merely say here that it is irresistible and far from the usual happy ending we’ve been guaranteed with family films.
Princess Kaguya is a work of emotional heights, both a very uplifting and very sorrowful film. It makes its point that life is short in the hardest way possible, by looking at the swiftness of the passing of childhood. Little Bamboo quickly grows from a baby to a toddler to a girl to a young woman. Though the film doesn’t specify exactly how long this takes, it is clearly at a supernatural speed. Isn’t that exactly what it seems like for those of us who do have children?
My son is one year old already. How? Where did the time go? A whole year gone. In a flash. Snap. Poof. Now it’s just a memory. I’m reminded of something Cooper said in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar:
“After you kids came along, your mom, she said something to me I never quite understood. She said, ‘Now we’re just here to be memories for our kids.’ I think I now understand what she meant. Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.”
The questions then are: Have I made good memories for my son? Have I ensured that he’ll love me in memory? Have I given myself a legacy in him? Have I taught him about the things that really matter? Have I given him happiness? I guess that any father (or parent) might think these things. As time passes I think of them more.
Watching Princess Kaguya was a personal experience. I thought of myself as the old bamboo cutter. I didn’t see the world of the film through the eyes of the divine girl. This is why the film had a reflective impact on me, which I think good art must do. I don’t consider myself a movie buff, and I only watch a few movies now and then, and go to the theater even less often than that, but if I see a movie I want it to have a purpose in my life. I want it to speak to me on some level, in some area I hadn’t thought on before, rather than merely entertain me. Princess Kaguya may have been a slower paced film than I’m accustomed to, but it nonetheless is a captivating one.
Princess Kaguya and The Wind Rises were originally planned to be released simultaneously, just like My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies. A bit of nostalgia after all these years but it’s appropriate that the two finales were produced side by side. Like Miyazaki’s last film, Takahata’s Tale of the Princess Kaguya is sad and it made me think. I appreciate it for that. If you don’t have children, don’t sweat it. I’d think that Princess Kaguya can still be a moving film for you. After all, there must be a reason why it is a tale that has been retold over and over again for 1000 years.
The 8-bit Review
In a world swooning under streamlined, sometimes sterile computer-animated films and special effects, Princess Kaguya feels like the quiet end of an era. It is an homage (and farewell?) to the age of hand-drawn animation. It is immediately apparent that this film is different: organic and natural with all of its faded colors and textured lines. Not only does it close the book on Takahata’s life as a director but it may prove to be one of the definitive bookends to a now outdated process in animation.
The Japanese watercolor painting aesthetic which Takahata employed in My Neighbors the Yamadas reappears here but with greater detail and craftsmanship. This is not cartoony in the least. Takahata, unlike Miyazaki, is not an animator yet he helmed a film which has utterly unique animation. It is beauty in simplicity, yet even the simplicity is deceiving since animating in this style could not have been easy. The Japanese treasure minimalism in their traditional art and this film takes hold of that design philosophy.
The ironic thing is computer effects were used to support the appearance of hand-drawn animation. They’re clear to be seen in some of the film’s grandest moments such as the flight scene toward the climax, with the meadow of flowers rushing past and the sky opening up above. It’s a brilliant way to highlight the capabilities of the human hand, rather than replace them with purely digital art.
One of the most interesting facets of the animation in Princess Kaguya is when the art style changes throughout the film. Sometimes it is remarkably subtle. Changes in color palette set the mood, but changes in background detail and vividness of color mark the eyes of expert animators. In a stark and memorable scene, the princess is caught up in desperate emotions and flees, and the whole animated world becomes a jagged nightmare of charcoal and contrasting color depicting harsh movement.
Princess Kaguya may just be the ultimate example of Studio Ghibli’s strive for perfection, since it adopts an art style so contrary to realism and yet it must maintain a complete sense of realism in physics, motion, posture, character, etc., at all times. Deceptively crude pencil strokes create personalities that can express vast impressions of emotion in their faces. The woodland backgrounds filled with forest creatures are astounding in natural detail.
One of the earliest scenes with the little girl learning to crawl and walk is humorous but also extremely lifelike, if not the most realistic movements of a baby ever animated. It is as if they recreated the Mona Lisa in crayon! It’s like they tied their hands behind their backs using this plain style of animation and then still they went on to produce jaw-dropping art.
The film does more than evoke real life imagery. It captures it in a way no other film has while at the same time remaining impressionistic.
This is the first time that Joe Hisaishi composed the score for a Takahata film. As such, it sounds more Japanese than many of his previous scores. His characteristic Western infusion of sounds takes a backseat here.
The whimsy we’ve come to expect from Hisaishi is reflected in the high, playful flute of Kaguya’s childhood melody. The composition also brings a warmth to the country life, though hard and rugged, which helps us believe that the princess really wanted to remain there in happiness before she was forced to move to the city. Echoes of her folk song melody pass throughout many of the later tracks, even after the woodland is long gone.
However, a majority of the soundtrack is plaintive and full of regret. It is used in the film to change the mood in a fraction of a moment, such as when Kaguya dances under the cherry blossoms before the hard reminder that she is no longer a commoner.
There is finally the style of music in this soundtrack which sounds distinctly religious, sometimes coldly so. And even beyond that music which captures the emotion of a scene.
Ultimately, Hisaishi’s score for the film is less expansive than others he’s done for Studio Ghibli in the past. The recurring themes recur quite often without great variation and we become all too familiar with them by the end of a movie that runs over two hours long. I wouldn’t say I grew tired of them, however. And perhaps the limited score is evocative of the limited span of the film’s protagonist, and also of its smallness in narrative as a folktale.
I can imagine that scoring a film like this must’ve been a challenge. How could you envision the music of the Moon? Like this:
It’s a score which invites the audience to ruminate on what’s being shown. Hisaishi remains to the end of Studio Ghibli a composer who believed in the significance of the music right alongside the visuals. In Princess Kaguya, it seems he’s found this balance. With the haze and the airiness of the film’s animated sketch, a lot of the impact falls under the responsibility of the soundtrack, and Hisaishi delivered with one of his lightest, most emotional and ascetic scores to date.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.
The old bamboo cutter discovers the miniature girl in the forest, then the gold and then the fine apparel, and as Little Bamboo grows quickly into womanhood and befriends many of the other children, like Sutemaru, the old man decides he must take her to the city and make her a proper princess. It is the will of heaven, so far as he is concerned. With great regret and sadness, Little Bamboo is taken from the woodland village, never to see her first home or her friends, or the simple life, again.
At the new mansion in the city, Little Bamboo is surrounded by servants and luxury. Her earthly parents are convinced that this will bring her happiness. First, it’s exciting but then the old man hires Lady Sagami, a strict woman who will teach her how to be a true princess, one who does not run, does not smile, does not speak or laugh. As a member of nobility, the girl is to be trained to accept the future suitors. Everything in Little Bamboo screams in defiance but for the love of her foster parents she obeys.
When she reaches the appropriate age, her parents throw a massive party, inviting strangers for her naming ceremony. She is to be formally called Princess Kaguya because of her beauty. But at the party, Kaguya is confined to a shaded, pillowed cell. A luxurious cage. When she hears the drunken men around her scorning her father for not letting them see her, as if she were an object, she flees from her cage in anguish. All of her fine robes fall behind her as she tears through the streets and the mountains back to her childhood home. But there she finds that it is winter and that everyone has gone. She faints in the snow and wakes to find herself back in the city. This breaks her spirit.
She allows Lady Sagami to stain her teeth black, paint her face pale, and pull out her eyebrows as was the custom in ancient Japan for noble women. Kaguya’s beauty soon becomes renown, helped by her father’s insistence upon keeping her hidden. Suitors galore flock to the mansion but none of them are good enough for her. Eventually, word of her otherworldly beauty passes to five of the wealthiest noblemen in the land and they each race to the mansion to take her as their own.
Kneeling before her curtain, the princess just out of sight, the five men confess their undying love for a woman they’ve never seen. They compare Kaguya to mythical treasures: the begging bowl of Buddha, a jewel from a dragon’s neck, the gilded branch of Horai, etc. In a demonstration of her cleverness, the Princess Kaguya expresses that she will accept the affection of the man she’s never seen face to face if and only if he can go out into the world and bring her back the mythical treasure he has compared her to.
The men are aghast and retreat from the mansion despondent because of the impossible tasks. Alone again, Kaguya resigns herself to seclusion. But some time later, the first of the five noble suitors returns with a jeweled branch of gold and a story of his adventure. Unfortunately, the artisans who designed the branch for the nobleman appear at the mansion, demanding payment for their work. Turns out it’s a fake.
So is the next one, and the next. Pretty ignoble of nobility to lie to a young woman. One of the suitors even loses his life attempting to secure his treasure. Kaguya is heartbroken and wild with anger and grief at this new life of so-called nobility and artificial happiness.
She returns to the countryside with her mother and an attendant to view the cherry blossoms. At first, Kaguya is overcome with joy but she bumps into a commoner on accident who hastily apologizes and prostrates before her, then flees, reminding the princess that she is indeed royalty and she can never go back to that left. She returns to the city in further resignation.
Still word of her unattainable beauty continues to spread and it reaches even the ears of the most powerful man in Japan, the Emperor himself. He comes to the mansion and spies on her playing her koto, then rushes up behind her without pretense and grabs her, saying that all women love his embrace. Kaguya is horrified but she is able to magically release herself from his grip and disappear. The Emperor is mystified and apologizes, but professes that he will remain steadfast in his love for her.
Kaguya’s heart cries out to the Moon, where it turns out she was originally from. She was sent to Earth to experience the life of mortals, since the Moon is a place of emotionless bliss and immortality. Her prayer has been heard by the residents of the Moon and she tells her earthly parents that they are coming for her. There is nothing they can do, however much she wants to remain with the old man and his wife.
The old bamboo cutter says he will stop it and save his little girl with his own hands. He amasses a huge army to defend the castle. While the preparations are underway, Kaguya slips back into the mountains and visits her hometown to say goodbye. She encounters her childhood friend Sutemaru, who is returning to the woodland after journeying for many years. When they see each other, they are overcome with years of pent up emotion and confess what they’ve longed to do since they were children, run away and be together. In a moment of pure joy and regret, Kaguya and Sutemaru embrace for the life which could’ve been and soar up into the sky. But when Kaguya sees the full moon shining, she plummets to the earth and the both of them awake as if from a dream. Kaguya is gone. Sutemaru takes up his son and rejoins his wife. He has already made a life for himself. It is too late.
Back in the city, the full moon rises. A parade of gods and goddesses descend from the Moon and none of the armies or the old man and his wife can stop them. Kaguya is taken up by them and one of the celestial attendants is about to place a robe of forgetfulness on Kaguya, to return her to ignorant bliss, before the princess hears the old folk song and stops them. She wishes to say goodbye to her parents and they shed many tears together. The attendant says that this suffering and emotional “impurity” will be no more in the bliss of the Moon but Kaguya insists that mortal life on earth, because of its fragility and transience and suffering, has its own beauty. But the robe is placed around Kaguya’s shoulders and as if in a trance she rejoins the procession and returns to the Moon.
Her heartbroken parents cry out to her and in one last defiant act, as the color drains from her, she looks back to see the Earth far below.
Can we be content to let children be children while they’re young? Perhaps we hurry too much to turn them into unfeeling adults like ourselves. In Kaguya’s case, her childhood was all but robbed from her, and in the rush to make her a princess, her well-meaning father took away her happiness. In making her like an adult, they told her she must never laugh or smile, and they plucked out her eyebrows and colored her teeth, they kept her in a cage, they forced her to listen to the mewlings of men professing their love for her though they didn’t even know what she looked like. In the ultimate example of turning a child into an adult, the attendants of the Moon come for her and is there anything more adultish and less wondrous than cold, unfeeling, ritualized religion? Buried beneath the weight of ceremony and tradition, the small tender heart of Little Bamboo was crushed to become Princess Kaguya.
It’s really quite tragic. Ironically, I thought of Disney’s princesses, like Jasmine and Ariel pining for a life beyond the walls of their palaces. Yet last time I checked they didn’t pull out Jasmine’s eyebrows. The suffering of Kaguya is unique among family film princesses. And all of that tripe in Disney about following your heart is turned on its head in this film as we see what a young woman goes through who isn’t allowed to pursue her own happiness. On the measures of feminism, I’ll say again that this is the marked difference between militant feminism and the true strength of Ghibli’s heroines.
What is true happiness? The film answers that question for Kaguya but I don’t feel that it attempts to answer the question for the audience. We may be used to preachy morals-to-the-story where we’re told à la Hobbiton that real happiness lies in simplicity. While this may be true, I don’t think Princess Kaguya tries to make that point. It merely shows it as a possible avenue, since Sutemaru doesn’t seem particularly enchanted with the rugged life. What true happiness is is up to the individual, within the boundaries of the law, ethics, and morality, of course. As for me, I’ve found that having less to worry about and less to pay for is nice, and as life has continued to grow more complicated so has life’s worries multiplied.
Another aspect of the film is the cyclical nature of life. Death is a part of it. Mortal life is characterized by temporariness. There’s nothing morbid about it. This isn’t some kind of fascination with death. It’s a natural part of life as much as the changing of the seasons in Kaguya’s rhyme. It’s an acceptance of death, realizing that mortal life’s beauty lies in the fact of its mortality. I can’t imagine that the Japanese would cherish the cherry blossoms in the same way if they bloomed all year round. Further, would babies be as precious if they remained in diapers and ignorance forever?
Life is short, therefore life is precious. Fireflies die soon. Go out and live.
Family Friendliness: 8/10
The biggest hindrance to Princess Kaguya being accessible to the youngest and most rambunctious members of the family is its ponderousness. I wouldn’t call it truly cumbersome but this is a long movie and its pace doesn’t help. There are scenes in the middle which seem like they last an eternity, only to pass into another scene which may be heavy on emotion that has become somewhat tiresome or even irksome by then. Isao Takahata took his time finishing this one. It seems his peers even worried about whether he was going to finish the film at all! I think that’s reflected in the movie itself. Otherwise, there’s no vulgarity, violence or scariness to put viewers off. There’s a breast feeding scene at the beginning which accounts for the nudity notification in the rating.
There is no performance which seems off but at the same time there are none which seem stellar. Chloë Grace Moretz must’ve had a heck of a time conveying all of the depths of sadness which Kaguya exudes later in the film, more so than the challenge of sounding truly happy in laughter earlier. James Caan has the perfect richness of an old man’s voice for the bamboo cutter and Mary Steenburgen as the cutter’s wife is the one bastion of comfort and warmth in Kaguya’s world of shrinking freedoms. Lucy Liu may not have been the most inspired casting choice as the harsh Lady Sagami but she plays the part well and I didn’t think her voice was overly noticeable. Each of the five princes are also well-cast, too. Sutemaru, finally, had an authentic voice for his role which I think captured the realistic non-idealism of the character.
This may be a film which is merely a retelling of an old, old story with a familiar folkloric structure but it deviates just slightly from the original tale so as to be its own entity. For example, there’s the absence of the mansion in the city and Kaguya’s parents try to prevent outsiders from courting her. The relationship between Kaguya and the Emperor of Japan in the original is markedly different, as well, with Kaguya writing him a letter and offering him immortality. Various different reasons for Kaguya’s presence on Earth are provided depending on the version of the folktale. The original also continues its story after the movie ends.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
As a film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is exquisitely beautiful like the renown fairness of its protagonist. It first struck me as unbearably and needlessly sad the first time I watched it. I’ve heard some describe it as flat. I think that this points to its origins as a folktale and not a massive epic full of thematic complexities and high adventure. It’s a quiet tale, like falling snow, and it demonstrates Isao Takahata’s skill as a director and his love for the history of his people.
Without him there would be no Studio Ghibli. The world owes Mr. Takahata a depth of gratitude. His work is a fitting compliment to Miyazaki’s, deserving of greater recognition than it’s known.
Aggregated Score: 8.2
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Categories: Movie Review