The Tale of Princess Kaguya

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UK Release Date 20th March 2015
Director Isao Takahata
Starring Aki Asakura
Runtime 137 Minutes
Certificate U
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 29th April 2015

Isa Takahata is responsible for one of the most traumatic movies I’ve ever watched. If you haven’t seen Grave of the Fireflies, well, you’ve missed one of the best anti-war movies ever made. So cast aside your preconceptions about animation, get yourself a stiff drink and watch it. Co-founder of Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki, Takahata has long dealt with far more grounded adventures than his more fantasy minded colleague. So a tale of a princess, delivered from the stars was bound to raise interest…

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya though is far from a fantastical Miyazaki adventure though, so probably best forget anything you thought you might know about this one on your way into the screening. Based on a 10th century Japanese folk tale Taketori Monogatari (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter) Takahata’s tale does indeed start fantastically - a lowly bamboo cutter is working in his forest when a bright light leads him to a bamboo plant. Inside the stalk of the plant he finds a tiny, perfectly formed princess. Thanking the heavens for his fortune, he takes the princess back to his wife, at which point it transforms into a human baby. The couple bring the child up as their own but as the child inexplicably shoots up (gaining herself the name L’ill Bamboo) and plays with the local children, the father worries that he is not able to provide his princess with the life she deserves.

Whilst out in the forest, the bamboo cutter is once again led to a glowing plant, this time bestowing a fortune in gold. A third glowing plant likewise brings him a fortune, but this time in rare fabrics. Heaven it seems is providing for its child. The father spends months building a mansion in the city befitting of his princess and, without consultation, moves his family into town, leaving behind the ‘lowly’ life they once led. Employing a tutor to teach L’ill Bamboo the ways of nobility, it’s not long before she is of age and is named Kaguya by the local chap that deals with that kind of thing (I forget his title). Suitors are soon lined up and the Princess soon realises that she is very much trapped.

I guess the first thing to mention at this point is that the animation here is very different in style from other Ghibli movies (including Takahata’s previous work) but it is no less stunning. Wondrously water colour rendered backgrounds filled with vivid greens and very often unfinished at the edges give the entire movie an ethereal, impressionistic edge. The characters roughly scratched out in charcoal provide almost all the dynamism in the movie, the backgrounds seldom move. The effect is something akin to watching a painting come alive in front of your eyes. When the backgrounds do get involved, it’s a deliberate shock - it’s often when the Princess is attempting to escape. I’ve included a small selection of stills below because really, it’s impossible to describe just how beautiful this movie’s animation is.

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It’s a shame then that the rest of the movie fails to live up to the quality of its animation. And I say this full in the knowledge that at the time of writing, this is rocking a 100% critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. There are a few key issues that stopped me from properly enjoying this movie but they’re issues I just couldn’t get past. 

At 137 minutes this is not a short movie and I’m not convinced it had so much story it needed to fill that time. It’s charming and heartwarming to watch the Princess as she grows up with her friends in the countryside but once she is imprisoned in the mansion, it’s as if we’re imprisoned with her. Her motivations for her actions are too mysterious for us to really get a handle on why she behaves as she does and the time she spent with childhood sweetheart Sutemaru seems too slight for us to really believe she is pining for him as she sits in her room at the mansion.

A mid movie break where we follow the Princess’ suitors as they attempt to gather the impossible items that they have compared her to in order to gain her hand lifts the sombre mood briefly but once the final suitor has been confined to the earth by means of a broken back, well, our spirits aren’t lifted for long. With the suitors out of the way, the Emperor takes an interest in the mysterious Princess, only for his attentions to be rebuffed and a terrible wish made.

The early scenes of the baby princess are genuinely impressive pieces of observation, animated perfectly - witness the way the baby attempts to sit and her continued attempts at frog impersonations and the central point of the Princess’ lost love (both her sweetheart and the wondrous countryside of her youth) is a worthy one but the fragments of that time period don’t ever seem to quite add up to a satisfying whole - one that would help us pine with the Princess.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is in some ways a magnificent piece of work and certainly one that has been long gestating (Takahata apparently spent eight years making his movie) and I have spent a fair amount of time attempting to come to a more positive conclusion than the one I have. For me though, the movie offers too little in the way of character for it’s enigmatic Princess and stretches out her tale over far too many minutes. The glacial pace will give you ample time to admire the stunning art work on display and you may get enough from that, for me though, I found my mind wondering. I won’t spoil the ending but suffice to say, it’s not the one that Hollywood would have given it, which is something normally to be commended but I couldn’t help wondering what the point of all this was given how it wraps up. You’ll understand if you see it. I’m sure there is a deeper, more significant meaning in this movie that I’ve missed but gorgeous and meticulous though this movie is, I find it very hard to love.

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