Directed by Isao Takahata
Written by Isao Takahata & Riko Sakaguchi
I think viewing The Tale of Princess Kaguya, side B of Studio Ghibli’s 2013 double feature with The Wind Rises which never was due to a delay in release for Princess Kaguya, goes a long way in seeing how my tastes have evolved over time. When I first got into film, and was first exploring the works of great auteurs such as Terrence Malick and Ingmar Bergman, I was quite taken by visual flair in their storytelling. Malick and Bergman are two of the more inspired visual composers, crafting endlessly beautiful and interesting frames throughout their films. The narrative heft of their films helped inform my exploration as well, but I think I was easily taken by the visuals to the point that if a film was deemed beautiful by me, then I enjoyed it endlessly, with or without depth of narrative focus or character insights. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a beautiful film, but more on that later.
Based on an ancient Japanese fairy tale, The Tale of Princess Kaguya opens on a bamboo cutter in a bamboo forest who happens upon a beam of light emanating from a bamboo stalk. In the stalk he finds a tiny, beautiful girl. In taking the doll-like figure home to his wife, the girl transforms into a baby, who quickly grows into a little girl. The rural couple adopt the girl and raise her as their own. When the bamboo cutter begins finding gold in the bamboo stalks, he builds a palace in the city and moves his family there to raise the girl as a princess, something which she rebukes. Forced by her father into traditional training, the now named Kaguya is presented with 5 noble suitors, whom she successively dismisses, upsetting her hopeful father who believes Kaguya’s happiness is found in one of these suitors. Kaguya proves him wrong, and the true nature of her existence is soon revealed.
I think upon reflection, there is much more narrative depth than how I initially experienced the film as it passed by. A traditional fairy tale, the film very much so plays out as such, hitting many familiar tropes in the genre, highlighted by a segmented structure which finds a childhood give way to adolescence and ultimately the dissent of the child and her passage into adulthood, being able to make decisions for herself. In this representation, the supernatural existence of Kaguya could easily be related to the phenomenon of parenthood, as children come as mysterious gifts until they are called into adulthood to be their own person, make their own decision, and live where they are meant to live, or do what they are meant to do, as hard as that may be for the parents to accept, in this case Kaguya’s father. This symbolism is not lost on me, but perhaps not being a father myself, its impact was lessened.
I also felt the standard nature of the fairy tale, and the fairly conventional storytelling techniques made The Tale of Princess Kaguya interesting and entertaining, but kept it from being a unique voice on the subject. What did separate the film was its astounding animation technique and visuals. Certainly one of Studio Ghibli’s finest, if not the finest, achievements in animation, the film is full of incredible pastel and watercolor frames which really add to the sense of fairy tale at play here. It is a supernatural world in which this story takes place and Takahata’s visuals compliment that so well as to make one of the more visually striking films in recent memory, and a high watermark for hand drawn animation in a time when CGI animation usually rules the big screens.
To return to my original thought, I think I have evolved as a viewer, as at one point I would have been so blown away by the visuals here to be completely sold on the film on that alone. However, while I tremendously appreciate those visuals, and rate them among the best I’ve seen, the story in my eyes lags behind, keeping The Tale of Princess Kaguya from being a truly great film. And perhaps my parental reading of the film could come back in a rewatch to win me over more with either a fresh perspective or further personal life experiences, but at this point in time, it feels good, yet standard and otherwise uninspired. I can’t direct people away from this film because it is a wonderful experience to undertake, but at this point in my exploration of Studio Ghibli, I have had better experiences than I had with The Tale of Princess Kaguya.