With the increasing probability that Hayao Miyazaki’s latest attempt at retirement might be permanent, Studio Ghibli may be in danger of losing its international notoriety. Outside of Japan, very few of their films have been able to enjoy the acclaim westerners seem to reserve for Miyazaki’s works. Hopefully, with the Blu-ray release of Isao Takahata’s Academy Award nominated film, ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’, the world may finally realize that Ghibli was more than just a one man show.
Takahata has worked on five films with Ghibli, but this latest release marks his return to directing after over 15 years. His esteemed filmography includes the delightful ‘My Neighbors the Yamadas”, and the haunting ‘Grave of the Fireflies’. His works tend to focus heavily on Japanese culture and history, as well as personal struggle.
‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’ is a retelling of the oldest story in Japanese history, Taketori Monogatari, or The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. In the film, as in the original tale, a peasant bamboo cutter (James Caan) lives in a small mountain village with his wife (Mary Steenburgen). One day, while tending to his grove, he spies a bamboo shoot radiating a beautiful light, out of which a small woman appears. When he takes her home, she assumes the form of an infant. The couple resolve to raise the child in accordance with what they assume to be Heaven’s will. The infant rapidly grows into a young woman, affectionately named ‘Little Bamboo’ by the other local children. Soon, the grove also presents the family with a fortune in gold pieces and silk robes, which the cutter declares is a sign that the child must be destined for nobility. She is taken to the capital city to learn the ways of elegance, poise, and discipline so that she may attract a highborn suitor and assume her place among high society as the beautiful ‘Princess Kaguya’.
Without giving away much more of the plot, the film centers around Kaguya, played in the English dub by Chloë Grace Moretz, as she rebels against the lifestyle that her father wishes her to adopt. The film adds a decidedly progressive and feminist view to the tale, questioning the culturally traditional (but modernly sexist and degrading) practices expected of high society women of the era. Kaguya’s internal struggle focuses on her desire to be free of her social obligations, while also wishing to please her father, who assumes he knows what will make her happiest. Men attempting to control women or claim them as property is a large theme in the film, one that it explores and debunks swiftly and wittily.
For an animated film, Kaguya is quite long. With a run time of over two hours, the story is able to spend a lot of time introducing and exploring aspects of the original tale. While those unfamiliar with the source material may find the plot a little disjointed, the film needs to be viewed as a preservation and celebration of a powerful piece of Japanese cultural history, not a Hollywood script attempting to retool the story for modern audience sensibilities. Take into account the strong cultural and translational barriers that the film also has to cross, and it’s not hard to imagine less initiated western audiences losing interest or becoming confused, but as the story is such an important part of its native culture, I find it hard to fault the film for this. Just be aware that you may need to try a little to stay open and receptive to the choices the film makes.
The film shines primarily due to its visual style, which celebrates hand drawn animation as well as traditional Japanese watercolor. They lines are bold and heavy, the colors are calm and muted, and the movement of characters is flowing and energetic. It feels as if you are witnessing a painting come to life, a truly marvelous sight that screenshots cannot do justice. The character designs and acting are iconic, unique, and adaptive to the film’s current tone. Backgrounds and landscapes burst with color and majesty. There is truly nothing like it on this level or scale.
A special mention must be made to the always impecable Joe Hisashi, who lends his composing abilities to the films score. His calm and joyous soundtrack magnifies the beauty of the visuals greatly, creating a fully marvelous experience, in every sense of the word.