It was only four months ago that The Wind Rises, Studio Ghibli’s previous film, hit theaters across Japan. But Hayao Miyazaki is not the only director over at the studio to have a movie out this year. Isao Takahata (of Grave of the Fireflies fame) released his own film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, this past weekend.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫の物語) is based on The Tale of The Bamboo Cutter—the oldest known Japanese folktale. In said folktale, a bamboo woodcutter finds a baby in a bamboo tree, and raises it as his own. After she grows up into a beautiful woman, princes—and eventually the Emperor himself—vie for her affection. In the end of the story, however, she returns to her home on the moon—leaving the Emperor alone and heartbroken.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya takes this simple fantasy tale and makes it a human story. The Princess is not just a prize for the men in the story that must be won. Rather, Kaguya is a normal person—a girl with her own wants and dreams. When she sends her suitors on seemingly impossible tasks, she thinks herself clever in avoiding marriage to a stranger she doesn’t love. When some come back claiming success she finds herself panic stricken—fearful that her plan has backfired. And when some of the suitors meet with unforeseen consequences, she indulges in a hefty helping of self loathing as she blames herself for what her “cleverness” has wrought.
When it comes down to it, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a battle of “wants.” Kaguya herself wants to live like she did as a child: poor as dirt and running through the fields with her friends. Her father wants her to be treated like the princess she truly is—and is hell bent on making her into a “proper lady.” The Emperor and the rest of her suitors want her as a prize—the one accessory that they can’t buy with all their money and power. And looming behind all this is what the people of the moon want—why they sent her to earth (and if they are coming to take her back).
All these “wants” collide in this story—making for a tale with no good or evil, but simply one with truly human characters facing ordinary (and extraordinary) problems caused by their conflicting desires.
Visually, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is an amazingly beautiful film. Unlike the majority of Ghibli’s films (which have a uniform visual style), The Tale of Princess Kaguya has a look all its own. The film is animated as if it were made with nothing but colored pencils and watercolors—making literally every frame of the movie feel like something that could be hung up in a gallery.
But what is really special about the animation in The Tale of Princess Kaguya is how it interacts with the story and the way in which it is told. In the film’s more tense and panic filled moments, the pencil lines become more jagged—the images more indistinct. The colors in turn mute toward blacks and grays. The opposite can be said for the surreal moments of the film where colors become brighter and the images sharper.
In other words, the film is pure eye candy from start to finish.
While nowhere near as depression-inducing as Grave of the Fireflies, suffice it to say The Tale of Princess Kaguya is not a happy story. It is filled to the brim with personal conflict and tragedy. If you see the Studio Ghibli logo and think you are in for a happy family adventure like My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away you are going to be cursing yourself through a river of tears. Consider yourself warned.
All in all, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a film that is just a joy to watch. By focusing on Kaguya as a person instead of an object, the film turns Japan’s oldest folktale into a story about normal people trying to find happiness. Add to that the most beautiful, unique animation in years and you have an instant classic. If you are looking for a fairytale that you can identify with on a personal level—or just want to see something breathtaking—The Tale of Princess Kaguya is right up your alley.
In other words, if you are going to watch only one Ghibli movie this year, make it this one.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya was released in Japanese theaters on November 23, 2013. There is currently no word on a Western release.
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