The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya (2013) Movie Review

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In 2013, Studio Ghibli released 2 major films in Japan.  One was Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, which ended up being his last film before retiring from animation altogether (and in his retirement is now creating a Samurai Manga).  The other was this film, by Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, who returns to directing for the 1st time in 10 years.  So…The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya.

The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya follows a pattern in Takahata’s work as a director, especially when compared to his partner-in-crime Hayao Miyazaki.  While Miyazaki created epic fantasy films that infused a lot of Japanese folklore, real and fictitious flying objects, and aspects of his love for European things – Takahata’s work focuses primarily on Japan and everything about it.  When I say that, I mean everything, from their greatest tragedy and will to live (Grave Of The Fireflies), to their sweet and sour reminisce of childhood (Only Yesterday), to their folklore and environmental concerns (Pom Poko), to the ups and downs of Japanese family life (The Neighbours The Yamadas).  The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya is Takahata’s interpretation of an old folk tale from Japan, known as The Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter, which focuses on an aspect that could affect the Japanese, even today.

When I say this, what do I mean?  Well, here’s a spoiler-free version of the story:  A Bamboo Cutter by the name of Sanuki no Miyatsuko was out cutting down Bamboo shoots when 1 day he finds a tiny princess inside 1 of the shoots he has just cut.  In great awe, he brings the tiny girl home, as she only fits in the palm of his hand.  As soon as Miyatsuko’s wife handles the little Princess, it transforms into a baby.  A baby which grows into a young girl within a few days/weeks.  During those few days, the young princess, who the village children nickname “Little Bamboo”, learns the way of life in the countryside and makes friends.  But before she could properly enjoy them, her foster parents tell her it’s time to leave, after Miyatsuko finds gold nuggets and fine clothes inside other bamboo shoots.  The princess is forced to drop her new life altogether, and start another new 1 in the Capital City, where her Father believes she will be a proper princess, and therefore a happy 1.  Her new life involves a lot of rules and rituals, which include conforming to certain behaviours, not being able to show much emotion, and squeezing herself into the Japanese fashion choices for Royals at the time (Tight kimono, white face, no eyebrows, black teeth).  She is then presented to 5 noble men (who haven’t seen her or even gotten to know her) who wish to marry her.  I’m going to stop there, because it’s better if I don’t spoil it, but rather just cover some of the themes.

Like I said, Takahata focuses on Japan in his work, and in this case he focuses on identity, the choices that other people make for someone else (Parents who want the best for their kids, but are selfish in their own way to not see that “the best”, in this case, money and royalty, isn’t what makes their kids happy), the shallow and judgemental class system (Being a “country girl” who all of a sudden becomes a princess almost disqualifies her among the nobles who had a silver spoon in their mouth since birth), and of course, the shallowness of some marriages, especially if it involves a woman being married off to a man who is rich, but not the man she loves, and who might treat her as a trophy rather than a human being.  Then again, I’m coming at this from the point of view of a non-Japanese, as well as a non-buddhist (The religious aspects of this story are within the context of buddhism), so maybe I’m missing something.

So…lets break down the film into components.  The voice acting in the Japanese dub is excellent, and the English dub is very good as well (even getting Chloe Grace Moretz (Hit-Girl in Kick Ass) as Kaguya, James Caan as the Bamboo Cutter, Mary Steenburgen as his wife, and Lucy Liu as Lady Sagami (who teaches Kaguya how to be a royal).  But during the scene were the village children were chanting “Little Bamboo”, it felt like a dentist drill beside my head (I know, it’s accurate, but it’s cuter in Japanese), it was enough to make me switch to the Japanese dub in my 1st viewing, unfortunately.

The animation and art style is a bit of a hybrid presentation, taking pencilled versions of Studio Ghibli’s trademark character designs and incorporating them into watercolour backgrounds that were composed like Kazuo Oga’s work in My Neighbour Totoro, while using materials that were used in My Neighbours The Yamadas, as well as what looks like a moving Sum-e ink painting in the scene of Kaguya running back to the Bamboo village.  This aspect in itself is not only different to anything Miyazaki has done.  But in its own way, it is roughly on par.  Roughly drawn at times, but beautiful to look at, very different, and flows wonderfully on screen.

The music is also a Studio Ghibli trademark, done by their staple composer Joe Hisaishi.  This time it’s unique as well.  While Hisaishi would compose a whole album of music for Miyazaki’s films, this time he chooses to be small and close to home by using Japanese instruments such as flutes and kotos more so than big orchestras.  Sometimes he will bring out his trademark piano, strings and brass, but he has kept the music collection down to about 20 minutes in total of new material.

The story is a bit of a morality tale, teaching us about value, love, identity, and the zeal of life.  It also teaches how money and royalty isn’t happiness incorporated, and the importance of people around us who care.  Without giving much away, I think it’s an excellent and quite challenging tale.

The characters are very good, with some good, innocent humour in the mix.  The little geisha with the round face who helps Kaguya makes me smile every time, without her having to say anything, and most of the nobles are a bunch of buffoons.

Would I recommend The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya?  Yes!  It’s a beautiful film.  One that really does “create the feels”, even if you know or care little about Japan, their customs and their beliefs.  It’s a film that celebrates life and provides food for thought by the end of it.

Voice-Acting: ****1/2

Animation/Art Style: *****

Music: *****

Story: ****3/4

Characters: ****1/4

Overall Rating: ****3/4

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