The Tale of Princess Kaguya (reviews - page 2)
This page lists information about reviews and articles related to the film The Tale of Princess Kaguya.
By Matt Goldberg
Studio Ghibli’s films have always embraced the connection between nature and magic, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya continues this tradition in fine form. Writer-director Isao Takahata, who also co-founded Studio Ghibli, breaks from the company’s familiar animation style to venture into a sumi-e look that perfectly suits the story’s celebration of nature’s simplicity and magnificence. Although Kaguya does become slightly redundant in highlighting its heroine’s values before the film indulges in an abrupt revelation, Takahata and Ghibli have still found fresh life in their classic themes.
A bamboo cutter is working in the forest one day when a tree begins to glow. As he approaches it, a plant blooms to reveal a tiny girl dressed in fine robes. He picks her up in the palm of his hand and takes her home to his wife whereupon the girl transforms into a normal, healthy, crying baby. The bamboo cutter takes this to be a sign that her original form indicated the girl’s destiny is to be a princess. The girl, Kaguya, physically ages through childhood and adolescence quickly (“like a bamboo shoot!” a playmate observes), but she’s overjoyed to be enjoying the wilderness around her. However, when another bamboo tree provides the cutter with gold, he uses their new wealth to move his family to the Capital and transform the girl into the princess he believes she was meant to be even though she’d rather be among nature and away from callow suitors.
The movie is based on a 10th century Japanese folktale, and Takahata beautifully animates his picture to the art style of the time period rather than create a straight adaptation. The story has a deep emphasis on appreciating the simple beauty of nature. Kaguya and her rural friends happily sing a song celebrating birds, beasts, grass, flowers, and so on. The more organic art techniques like watercolors, pens, and pencils are in tune with the simple life Kaguya wants to lead.
There’s a cuteness and vivacity to Princess Kaguya that’s immediately endearing, which is surprising since we’ve seen other Ghibli movies, e.g. My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Arrietty to name a few, revel in the enchantment of nature. Kaguya stands apart thanks to its art style and that Takahata decides to embrace the story’s folk roots. The movie feels like a long-form folktale with the director having the freedom to provide more detail to the characters’ personalities while allowing familiar folklore tropes like poor origins and wealthy suitors to provide the story beats. For example, the movie paints Kaguya’s father as somewhere between a doting parent and a pageant mom—he truly believes what he’s doing is best for his daughter, but he’s also relishing the respect and attention he receives because noblemen want to marry her.
But folktales are foremost about structure—we know Jack climbs the beanstalk, but the tales vary with regards to Jack’s emotional state—and Kaguya misses a major setup that results in a reveal coming off as comical in its randomness. Had Takahata even alluded to this reveal, it would have played wonderfully because the symbolism makes total sense. But without a set up, a movie that was already running long (there comes a point where Kaguya is dancing among cherry blossoms, and all we can say is, “Yep, nature sure is great.”) now feels like it’s trying to find an ending and came upon one that’s almost completely arbitrary. Takahata’s confident direction and the charming tale are enough to have the movie recover, but it’s still jarring when any storyteller has to go, “Wait. I mentioned this earlier, right? No? Well, okay, I’m telling you now.”
Thankfully, it’s still an enchanting movie and one that dances between joyous and bittersweet. It’s a lament for lost seasons, lost wilderness, and lost childhood. Like any well-told folktale, The Tale of Princess Kaguya eloquently weaves a captivating narrative that paints in broad strokes but is still detailed enough to land an emotional impact. And even when the movie it stumbles, it has the strength to gracefully stand up, smile, and keep playing in the wonders of nature.
Consequence of Sound
5 December 2014
By Blake Goble
Both joyous and melancholy, Isao Takahota’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya is an exquisitely drawn fable. We witness the magical life and experiences of the sweet Kaguya as she’s born out of a bamboo shoot, emerges into royalty, and experiences all the pains and splendors of being a young woman on Earth. Expanded from The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a 10th century folktale from Japan, Kaguya is arriving somewhat desperately with a small arthouse run in the U.S. (today in Chicago, later this month as a MOMA screening, and sporadic showings throughout this past year), but it’s among the year’s finest works of animation, a halcyon antidote to trendy Hollywood freak-outs and franchises in animation. Find it. Somehow. And immerse yourself in Kaguya’s story.
Okina, a bamboo cutter, chops a stalk in the woods, only to find a small and magisterial blossom inside. The blossom’s housing a tiny woman in robes, sleeping. Nervously, he takes this little person that fits in the palm of his hand and gingerly presents the strange finding to his wife. Without warning, the small woman changes into a baby girl. The baby into a small toddler. The toddler then suddenly turns into an attractive and charming young woman. She develops nearly a lifetime in what seems like mere days.
Kaguya rushes through the experiences of childhood life, losing innocence and experience. In addition to Kaguya’s “birth,” great wealth came from Kaguya’s bamboo shoot as well, in the form of fine cloth and gold. Kaguya immediately stumbles into royalty and is declared a princess. Soon after, suitors, charlatans, hucksters, and all-around selfish people prey on her as she tries to hold fast to her ideals. Kaguya sees tradition and status as distractions. When she’s prepped to be a classical geisha-like figure, Kaguya panics and falls into despair, asserting that life is about laughter and sadness, not jewel-encrusted tree branches or prim and proper body movements. Still, Kaguya, sad about her trajectory, manages to laugh and smile, and it’s a lovely, contagious laugh. Kaguya’s capacity for happiness is untouchable.
What starts as a miraculous birth expediently becomes a lamentable realization. Kaguya’s life is too short and too divine for this selfish world of ours. Once you realize what she’s up against, what’s coming quickly, you see how unfair it is to be Kaguya. She’s a free spirit and a wonderful young beam of light. Not to wax daily affirmation, but Princess Kaguya makes one appreciate life’s simpler pleasures and eventually breaks the heart when you realize how much time is wasted on worrying about personal presentation.
Princess Kaguya comes from Isao Takahata of Grave of the Fireflies, another sad story with bittersweet sensitivity. Its patience is key. Although the middle act struggles to maintain audiences’ attention, the opening is wonderful, even magical, and the ending, well, you’ll feel it. Kaguya and her tale – thanks in no small part to voice actress Aki Asakura – make for a sort of spiritual advisor.
Seemingly rooted in very specific Japanese aesthetics (etagami painting, sad ironies in taste and beauty, webi-sabi, a mindful approach to the beauties of life), Princess Kaguya is a genuine vision. It presents clean, precise lines with soft colors in genuine, minimalist fashion. The skies and backgrounds are mostly white, and every frame has a way of centrally focusing on the right face, character, emotion, or plot device. From the fragile coming of Kaguya, to her fluidly rushing through fields and homes, to the desperate or humble faces of every character, everything looks pointed and perfect. Kaguya’s simplicity of art suggests a happy tale, which it often is, but it also serves to point out the deceits we put on in presenting our best veneers to impress others. In that way, Kaguya’s animation becomes meaningful, not just pretty.
A quick final note: this was screened with subtitles, with the original Japanese cast. Everyone sounds pretty perfect in their roles. However, apparently there’s an American cut, including reads from Chloe Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, James Marsden, John Cho, and many more name actors. In general, it’s assumed a film like this sounds best in its native language, but one can’t help but be curious with that cast. Perhaps a re-viewing is in order, but who knows where or when it’ll be in theaters?
17 October 2014
The newest animated film from Studio Ghibli turns princess folklore on its ear.
By Brian Formo
You may have heard the news that Studio Ghibli – the Japanese animation company behind some of the best movies of the past three decades (Princess Mononoke, Grave of the Fireflies, Spirited Away, etc) – is restructuring. Most of the founders stepping down. Will that make the most recent, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (released today), the swan song of Ghibli?
At the crossroads of journalism with fandom we often get a little too wrapped up in finalities and retrospectives. Regardless of business rumblings, the beloved films of Ghibli’s past will still be wonderful and a joy to share with others. Their newest one is The Tale of The Princess Kaguya and it is a fantastic movie — full of truths, wisdom and stunning animation — and it would be a fitting shutter on a distinguished era of animation. If it is. What is important is that regardless of what we think will happen to Ghibli, the tradition of making animated tales unlike anyone else – charcoal sweeps, watercolor, a 137-minute runtime — is in full bloom in this film.
Isao Takahata is 78-years old. He is a co-founder of Ghibli (with Hayao Miyazaki). Unlike Miyazaki, however, the 2000s have been very quiet for Takahata (director of Grave of the Fireflies). This is the only feature film that he’s made in this century. And Kaguya takes him back to work that he started on more than half a century ago, in 1959. Takahata was working for an animation studio that was mounting an adaptation of the classic Japanese fable “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” “Bamboo Cutter” tells the story of a man who discovers a tiny infant girl in a bamboo stalk. The girl grows up startlingly fast — full grown by age 5 — and the cutter takes her to the city to make her a princess, because he believes that’s what she is.
Takahata has shifted the focus from the bamboo cutter and properly titled the film The Tale of The Princess Kaguya. It’s a grounded and touching portrait of a girl who wants to be a girl and not a princess. Which — for an animation film — is certainly a shift.
Kaguya was born in nature, encased in a stem. Having male suitors for her at age five, because she’s grown so fast, should be kept in mind for more than ickiness’ sake. Because time moves much faster for Kaguya, she experiences what being a princess is like even younger: primping and classes that attempt to contain a wild spirit. And lines of men who hope that you will carry their children, when in fact, you’re still a child.
There is a reveal more than an hour through Kaguya that explains her quick growth and origin. Takahata smartly doesn’t include a prologue. Since the bamboo cutter knows nothing of her origin and Kaguya herself does not, it’s more daring — but natural — to tell the story from beginning to end, with no preamble about a curse or prophecy. Kaguya thinks she’s a young woman and so she is. Her film is billed as “the crime and punishment of a princess” but it’d be more accurately described as the crime and punishment of being a princess. Once the spirit-stifling process of princess-hood is revealed Kaguya does not want what young girls are taught to desire. One (of many) gorgeous animated sequences involves her running through a courtyard, tearing off all her fine fabrics and littering them in a line beneath the moon, as she tries to make her way back to the humble village where she was found.
About that run-time. Kaguya does get a little long. There might be a little too many twirling in nature scenes. But Kaguya is such a magnificent and identifiable character that it should hold the interest of children. Mysticism is introduced later, after all.
I cannot speak to the voice-work of the English version (Chloe Grace Moretz voices Kaguya, James Caan the bamboo cutter and Mary Steenburgen, his wife) because I saw a version with the (excellent) Japanese track with English subtitles. An aside: a part of me is curious about Caan’s ability to capture the sense of bafflement and wonderment that’s intrinsic to the bamboo cutter. In my brain I hear Caan with a Brooklyn accent. It feels like it’d be as out of place as Harvey Keitel pushing around Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. I mention this because I’d love for a reader to comment on the voice-work of the version being shown in theaters. This is a call to all!
Stepping back from my curiosity and back to my review: I fear I might be making Kaguya sound depressing. It is not. Takahata’s film is so alive. It spins in cherry blossoms. It feels the wind. It marvels at children and perfectly renders the baffled eyes when encountering new things such as frogs. But not all the immense wonder is applied just to Kagua. The “hillbilly” children of the village get those great gestures, too. And there are magnificently defined tears of joy from the bamboo cutter when little Kaguya comes to him while he chants “Princess” (as opposed to the walking to the villagers who chant “Lil Bamboo”). Importantly, the bamboo cutter is never rendered to be uncaring despite desiring her to be a princess. Fathers do not understand the punishment of being a princess. They think that’s what all little girls want, but what they really want is just to please their father.
Kaguya‘s great success is not only in the museum-quality animation, but in turning the princess fable onto its ear. Let it go. Let it go. Let it gooooooooooooo.
8 December 2013
By Matt Schley
This article originally ran on otakuusamagazine.com
A simple bamboo cutter goes about his work in the forest when he suddenly comes across a miniature princess growing from a flower. When he takes the princess home to his wife, she transforms into a human baby before their eyes. The childless couple, believing the gods have sent them a child, decide to raise the baby as their own.
That’s the start of a 10th century folktale familiar to most Japanese called The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, aka Princess Kaguya. It’s a story that’s long held the interest of Studio Ghibli co-founder and director Isao Takahata, whose long-gestating animated version of the folktale has just hit screens in Japan.
If Hayao Miyazaki has truly retired from filmmaking and the 78-year-old Takahata has no plans for a future movie, 2013 will have marked the year when both Ghibli co-founders released their final films. And if that turns out to be the case, Takahata, like Miyazaki, will have gone out on an extremely high note.
Takahata has always had more interest in telling Japanese stories than his European-minded counterpart Miyazaki, and Princess Kaguya is perhaps his most traditionally Japanese yet. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is considered the oldest extant work of Japanese literature, and Takahata has made no significant changes to the narrative. It feels as if his goal was no to interpret or modernize the story, but to deliver a pure, animated version of the tale.
To that end, Princess Kaguya looks almost like a moving watercolor painting.
Like Takahata’s last feature, My Neighbors the Yamadas, Princess Kaguya doesn’t look much like a “standard” Ghibli film. Its characters are a bit squatter and shorter, looking like a combination of anime designs and portraits from traditional Japanese woodblock prints.
The backgrounds in the film are striking both for their beauty and their minimalism. A less confident director wouldn’t dare leave so much “blank” space, but Takahata embraces negative space as a way to highlight the important parts of the frame.
The animation itself is, as we’ve come to expect from Ghibli, first-rate. And there are moments that are truly sublime. The scene shown in a trailer for the film, where Kaguya rushes out of her castle and into the woods, is, for my money, more stunning than any shot in The Wind Rises.
But there are many beautiful moments of stillness, too. When the humble bamboo cutter finds gold in the forest, he tears Kaguya from her carefree, simple life in the forest and installs her as a true princess in a vast, but lonely, castle. Kaguya, who is more interested in nature than ceremony, suffers under the weight of aristocracy. These scenes are infused with a beautiful melancholy, brought to life both by the nuanced character designs and music by Joe Hisashi, longtime Miyazaki collaborator who provides music for a Takahata film for the first time.
A mark of Ghibli films, from both Miyazaki and Takahata, has always been strong, three-dimensional female characters, and Kaguya is no exception. Rejecting wealthy princes who have come to seek her hand over the objections of her father, Princess Kaguya shows herself to be a strong-willed woman. So it’s especially appropriate that the end of this particular chapter of Studio Ghibli history is capped with an exceptional film celebrating Japan’s original strong female character.
3 November 2014
By Eddie Pasa
(Please note: this review is of the Japanese-language version, not the newly-dubbed English version.)
There’s something ethereally special about Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Although devoid of the polished, finished animation that Studio Ghibli’s productions – My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and From Up On Poppy Hill among them – the dreamlike sketches that comprise this film allow us to focus more on the story and to enjoy the simplicity of almost brushlike strokes of the animators’ pencils.
Based on an old folk legend called “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” this film runs away with our imaginations while toying with our ideas of what happiness should be. Is happiness truly self-owned, or is it merely a projection of what other people want for us? So begins the short life of Kaguya (Aki Asakura), a mysterious being found inside a bamboo shoot by the eponymous Bamboo Cutter (Takeo Chii). After taking her home to his wife Ōna (Nabuko Miyamoto), they start to notice something else strange: Kaguya is growing at such an alarming rate, starting off as a baby and proceeding to toddlerhood and adolescence over the course of a few days.
The Bamboo Cutter finds other things in bamboo shoots, such as cloth (supposedly made for royalty) and a whole hoard of gold pieces. This gold stash enables him to move his family out of their poor mountain area and into a city mansion, replete with servants and a woman named Sagami (Atsuko Takahata), whose sole purpose is to teach Kaguya how to be a proper gentlewoman. All the while, the Bamboo Cutter maintains that this is the good life and it must be what Kaguya wants, isn’t it?
However, her presence here on Earth has been riddled by strangeness, from the way she was found, the way that nature’s objects bend to her will, and how she manages to be great at everything she attempts. There’s an explanation brewing, but it’s quickly glossed over by the legend of her beauty and wisdom spreading to the noblemen, who all want either a look at this woman or to marry her.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya adheres strictly to the folktale, deviating little from the text except to develop more of Kaguya’s personal relationships with her family and her mountain neighbors, including a young man named Sutemaru (Kengo Kora) with whom she seems to find a romantic and kindred spirit.
Isao Takahata has fashioned a haunting, affecting film using a rich story to complement its sparse animation. We find ourselves truly digging into Kaguya’s mystical and cryptic history while rooting for her to find the happiness she seeks out of her short time on Earth. The film can also be seen as a challenge to traditional gender roles, as Kaguya definitely doesn’t act like a princess of her time. Her indomitable spirit cannot be contained, no matter how much Sagami or the Bamboo Cutter wish it to be; she is a character truly unbridled and free.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya does leave out one very important part of the original folk tale for the sake of a clipped, bittersweet ending. However, this film is damn near to perfect as a film can get, so I’m willing to give that a pass. It is a breathtaking, powerful, sublime film in which to find oneself enraptured. Kaguya embodies that hope and spirit that we all wish to have; using it as a metaphor for our lives here on Earth strikes home with such a chord, you’ll be thinking about it and musing upon it for days to come.
14 October 2014
By Noel Murray
It’s no great surprise to see composer Joe Hisaishi’s name in the credits of The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, since he’s scored nearly every Studio Ghibli animated feature. But it’s still a treat to hear Hisaishi’s music, which has lyrical grace and sonic depth, and never fails to make a Ghibli film seem even more like a piece of fine art. Even more than Pixar—or Walt Disney studios in its Walt-headed heyday—there’s an impeccability to Ghibli’s work, with every element executed with thoughtfulness and precision. In The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, Hisashi’s score is used sparingly, to evoke ancient Japan, the changing of the seasons, and the often heartbreaking maturation of a young girl. But even when the score is absent, the movie’s sound effects are so subtle and exact that they can capture the soft pelt of snow flurries. Even the quietude in Kaguya is just-so.
The sheer artistry of The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya matters, because the movie has an odd and overstuffed plot that sometimes works against its beauty. Based on the Japanese folktale “The Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter,” Kaguya tells the story of a girl who springs to life from a bamboo stalk and then grows rapidly, under the care of an elderly, childless couple named Okina and Ona. Kaguya is very happy in the country, playing with the other poor children, but when Okina finds gold and fabric for beautiful robes in the same grove where he found Kaguya, he takes it as a sign from God that she’s meant to live in the finest house in the city, and to be instructed on how to conduct herself like a princess. When The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya moves to the city, the simple, elemental pull of the movie’s first act gives way to bumbling slapstick from the in-over-his-head Okina, and a pile-up of new characters. And then the movie takes another turn in its third act, with a left-field twist that changes everything Kaguya has been about up to that point. (For more on that twist, see “The Reveal,” below.)
To be fair, most of the stranger wrinkles in The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya are taken straight from “The Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter,” and there are plenty of times when the film’s “story passed down from generation to generation” feel works in its favor. Two of the longest sections in Kaguya involve the parade of fancy lords who hear rumors of a beautiful princess with incredible wealth and come to the city to court her. Not ready for love—and annoyed at how the other rich families in the community have treated Okina like a no-nothing hick—Kaguya gives each of her suitors an impossible task to complete, and the way they choose to fulfill her demands reveals both their hypocrisy and Kaguya’s carelessness, just like in a classical fable.
It helps too that so much in the action in The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya is filtered through the perspective of its amazing heroine. Early on, the movie is about Okina and Ona not knowing what to do about this little miracle who’s entered their lives, and trying to determine the will of the divine. But it very quickly becomes about Kaguya’s stubborn insistence on doing what she wants. Kaguya is adept at everything, takes nothing too seriously, and sees no reason why she should spend her days crouched and immobile, her face painted white and her teeth painted black, playing an instrument and drinking tea, rather than running through the fields back at the home where she grew up. The best parts of The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya have nothing to do with courtly intrigue, but are instead concerned with things more primal and universal, like a girl resisting the social constraints of womanhood, and well-meaning parents watching their most precious possession slip away from them.
Throughout The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, even when it gets bogged down in too much story, the animation is so gorgeous that any given frame could pass for a masterwork. The film was directed by Isao Takahata, one of Ghibli’s founders, who’s been responsible for some of the studio’s most striking and unusual films (including the internationally acclaimed Grave Of The Fireflies and the vastly underrated Only Yesterday). Kaguya has the muted color palette and loose brush strokes of old Japanese paintings, and an attention to the details of movement that can make an audience see a frog hopping or a kitten playing in a whole new way. But much like the way he uses Hisaishi’s score, Takahata keeps the animation restrained until two breathtaking sequences: one where Kaguya dreams of fleeing a tedious party in her honor, and another where she finally does return to her old land and old friends, and takes her childhood crush on a flight through the mountains. These sequences rough up the drawings, creating a feeling of motion through minimal backgrounds and jittery lines. They’re raw and pure, these moments, forgetting all the tangled plot-complications and just cutting loose—art for art’s sake.
(Note: The Tale Of Princess Kaguya is being released in both an English-dubbed version and the original Japanese version. Check your local listings.)
16 December 2014
STUDIO GHIBLI, the animation studio behind the Oscar-winning feature film “Spirited Away”, has frequently been described as Japan’s answer to Disney. It’s perhaps closer to the truth to call it Japan’s antidote to Disney. Studio Ghibli’s lush, hand-drawn, 2-D animation, disregard for Hollywood narrative formulae and guiding philosophy—that animated films can be for grown-ups—are sadly foreign concepts in the paradigm of modern animation. This is the studio that released the whimsical cinematic lullaby “My Neighbour Totoro” on the same bill as “Grave of the Fireflies”, a devastating second-world-war drama that Roger Ebert called the most realistic animated film he’d ever seen, not because of how it looked, but how it felt.
In the wake of the retirement of its visionary director, Hayao Miyazaki, last year, Studio Ghibli is taking an indefinite break from the production of new feature films, citing high production costs. This is a profound loss to animation and cinema, and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is a vivid, bittersweet illustration of all the reasons why. With no British or American release dates announced for the studio’s latest effort “When Marnie Was There”, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” may go down as Studio Ghibli’s swansong on the international scene.
Directed by Isao Takahata (director of “Grave of the Fireflies”), “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is a gorgeously asymmetrical blend of celestial fantasy, folksy parable, romance and coming-of-age story, beginning with the discovery of a tiny, thumb-sized princess in a stalk of bamboo. The princess magically transforms into a baby who grows, at an alarming rate, into a young woman of exquisite beauty, and is whisked away by her adoptive parents to a regal life more befitting her.
Not only does “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” set itself well apart from anything you’re likely to see by Disney these days, it’s also miles away from Studio Ghibli’s own sumptuously detailed style. Instead, Mr Takahata has created a striking and expressionistic storybook aesthetic, with a subdued watercolour palette, sketchy character outlines and plenty of white space. In an age saturated by computer-generated gloss, these visuals make us aware of the artists and their handiwork. It all feels as charmingly antiquated as the handcarving of wooden bowls depicted in the film.
In the movie’s most breathless sequence, the princess escapes from her royal mansion and races headlong into the night, gowns and long hair fluttering—at which point the visuals burst into vibrant life, sweeping up the audience in a blurry rush of frantic graphite strokes, as if the film itself has become gloriously liberated from its constraints. The captivating sequence is accentuated by the portentous soundtrack of the composer, Joe Hisaishi, another artist whose signature style has become beloved of Ghibli fans.
As wondrous as it is, it’s the sort of stylistic flourish that has the potential to alienate Western audiences accustomed to more homogenised animation. When a sample of these scenes was revealed in an online teaser trailer in 2013, one American film site suggested that it resembled “unfinished storyboards waiting to be animated”. And, naturally, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” has been dubbed into English for its American release, an egregious (though well-meaning) practice initiated by Disney even for films clearly intended for mature audiences capable of reading subtitles. With that kind of treatment to be expected at the hands of mainstream Western audiences, it can be little wonder that a dazzling lodestar on the international animation scene is fading away.
21 September 2014
The latest from Studio Ghibli is the studio's most beautiful film yet.
By Elizabeth Harper
Tales of Studio Ghibli's demise may have been exaggerated, because The Tale of Princess Kaguya is simply breathtaking. The film features Isao Takahata's return to directing at Ghibli - he last directed the 1999 comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas for the studio, though he's perhaps still best known for the war drama Grave of the Fireflies. And though Princess Kaguya has some comic moments, this fairy tale packs an emotional punch that's more reminiscent of Fireflies.
An adaptation of Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, Kaguya tells the story of a child found in in a bamboo frond. When a bamboo cutter stumbles across her, he takes her in and raises her as his own daughter. The story is simple, but the animation, with its lively, hand-drawn feel, brings it to life. At times we see Kaguya drawn with great care and precision, showing her as a the regal princess her adoptive father feels her to be. But other times - particularly when Kaguya is overcome with emotion - the art style becomes rough and wild, the sketchiness of the drawings conveying a sense of urgency. It's a style that perfectly suits the story and does a beautiful job getting the tale's emotional message across.
The story itself is the film's weakness, as it rolls out at a very leisurely pace (Kaguya is just over two hours long) and doesn't contain many surprises. However, it's the way it's packaged with art, music, and acting that makes it something special. Though Kaguya's life as the daughter of the bamboo cutter is simple, she's happy to explore the wilderness and play with local children. However, her father thinks she deserves to be raised as a proper princess - and when he finds gold and fine cloth in the woods, he decides to use this to build a grand home in the city and, presumably - since the story is told from Kaguya's perspective, details like this aren't clear - purchase a title for the family.
Kaguya is initially thrilled by the grand new home, her enthusiasm is soon curtailed by her tutor Sagami, who intends to teach Kaguya to behave like a lady - which means no running, no playing, no swimming, and, generally, no fun. And though her father has taken well to city life, always dressing in fine clothes, Kaguya can often be found with her mother, weaving, cooking, or gardening, even though her father reminds them there's little need for either of them to do such things.
When Kaguya comes of age and suitors start arriving to ask for her hand in marriage, she sends them off with impossible tasks - much to the disappointment of both her father and tutor. However, her refusal to marry only draws further attention, finally resulting in the emperor himself coming to court her.
As Kaguya tries to escape from this life, the story becomes more dream-like: she imagines herself fleeing from her new home and running back to the mountain on which she used to live only to wake up still in her room. She finds a childhood friend and they run and fly over the fields together, but then, again, she is back home. Sequences like this are presented as truth without fitting into a coherent narrative.
These dreamy sequences is in contrast to the film's otherwise grounded nature, which focuses on many of the simple aspects of Kaguya's life: sharing a melon with a friend, chasing a kitten, or spinning beneath falling cherry blossoms. Even though Kaguya is clearly something not of this world, the story is avoids leaning on magic until the final act... and because of this, the final act doesn't quite seem to fit with the rest.
Still, these scenes pack an emotional punch and offer insight into Kaguya's thoughts that we would have otherwise missed, so it's hard to begrudge their presence - especially when they're so beautifully animated.
Bottom Line: Though the stylized animation won't be a hit with everyone, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a gorgeous piece of animation that has as much emotional punch as anything Studio Ghibli has ever produced.
Recommendation: Ghibli fans should be on the lookout for the American theatrical release in October, because the animation is definitely worth watching on the big screen.
27 November 2014
By Dan LaTourette
Isao Takahata has a pristine talent of injecting a strong vitality for life with enthusiasm for its pleasures yet always seems to underline it with a sense of futility. Consequently, many of his stories treat this dynamic as a way to express the fragility of life itself, that all of the joys and fears and hopes that life brings forth before us can end as fleeting as it began. These are fundamental similarities between Takahata's revered masterpiece, "Grave of the Fireflies," and his most recent masterpiece, "The Tales of the Princess Kayuga." The tragedy of this whole film originates from the fragile nature of Kaguya's existence. Nonetheless, Kaguya, herself, bursts with vivaciousness and is thankful to all that life has to offer.
It must be said with steadfast conviction that "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" is a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful film. The hand-drawn and paintbrush animation moves with intimacy; the love and care of its creators can be potently felt by the audience within every frame. The story blossoms so magically yet organically. When a bamboo cutter miraculously finds a tiny princess inside a stick of bamboo, he immediately takes it as a sign from the heavens and puts it upon himself to raise her. When he brings this girl to her wife, something amazing happens. This miniature princess transforms into a crying baby. The now self-appointed parents, Momma and Poppa, will eventually realize that this princess grows up incredibly fast. The kids in the village regard her strangeness jovially and they pen the name Lil' Bamboo for her because she grows just as fast as bamboo. Kaguya enjoys her childhood in the mountains, helping out with the work around the house and catching food to make a nice meal. It is a hard life, but an enjoyable one.
Yet, her accelerated growth makes childhood breeze by like a gust of wind. In addition, Poppa finds more things inside bamboo: a huge pile of gold and an arrangement of nice kimonos colored in the spectrum of the rainbow. Poppa knows what he has to do. He must treat his daughter like the princess she was meant to be. With cold spontaneity, they leave the simplistic village behind to live a life of luxury. Kaguya is treated like a princess, though she never acts like one. Her disgust to remain immobile, to put on the laborious makeup, and to become the object of men who see her as treasure, is shown through her moments of brief freedom running around aimlessly, laughing at nothing in particular, and her memories of childhood. In one dream sequence, one of the most captivating scenes I have ever witnessed in an animated film, Kaguya breaks through her mansion and runs all the way to the mountains of her youth. The drawn outlines of her figure begin to crumble into themselves, revealing something less than human. Her surroundings begin to rip apart; her reality and sense of life chaotically dissolve. Ingenious animation highlights the emotional tension and, to remain consistent, it is a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful scene.
I always refer to Scott McCloud’s fundamental analysis on understanding comics, which roughly explains that simplification in form leads to an amplification of expression. There are many moments where the animators made the aesthetic choice to simplify details, sometimes even choosing not to draw in faces. This is all in relation to the detail given to Kaguya, whose face is one of the glorious aspects of watching this film. With subtlety and minute alterations, Kaguya’s eyes tell the whole story without the need for dialogue. Her character carries a delicacy that is both vulnerable and absolutely powerful. The final scenes of this film is a defiant moment of McCloud’s concept and gives us an unapologetically ambiguous view of human frailty.
Isao Takahata’s been Hayao Miyazaki’s partner in crime for many decades in creating arguably the greatest animation studio, Studio Ghibli. Besides his famous “Grave of the Fireflies,” Takahata has managed to make animated films in ways that American studios couldn’t even fathom. His excruciatingly underrated “Only Yesterday” contemplates on nostalgia and youth in a manner more akin to Yasujiro Ozu or Wim Wenders than John Lasseter. “The Tale of the Princess Kayuga” is a fantastical folk tale that delves deep into the human dilemma of existence. It bustles with a cultural and social uniqueness of a bygone era. It focuses on a female protagonist who desires more for fully living life without fear than to become an affirmation of a man’s masculinity. If there is one thing we can say about this film is that it is a gorgeous piece of animation, maybe even one of the best. But we don’t need to stop there. Takahata has made an melodious human film of life-affirming expression. All the more reason to go see it not just as an animation fan or even a movie fan but of a fan of stories that you can take with you for the rest of your life.
21 December 2014
By Joshua Spielman
In a world of three-act plots and character arcs, Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya reminds us that stories don’t have to be neat to be accessible. Studio Ghibli’s final film (for the foreseeable future) is a retelling of a Japanese folktale with the intimacy of a bedtime story and the breadth of an epic. It is illustrated with the utmost care – with creative, balanced compositions eclipsing the need for broad illustrative strokes. Takahata’s latest masterwork doesn’t explain itself, nor is it interested in doing so; its tangents make for a rich tapestry of plaintive beauty and immeasurable wisdom, and what more could we ask for?
The mythic figure of Princess Kaguya began life as a pod-person, discovered inside a bamboo shoot as a tiny, pristine figure, but when she is dropped by the couple who find her, she morphs into an infant. She can’t quite fit in with the village children, who dub her “little bamboo” and tease her when she sings. Seeking a life befitting a princess, her father buys her a palace with the gold he mysteriously discovers in another bamboo shoot.
Kaguya is too noble for the villagers yet too rambunctious for the wealthy, though that doesn’t keep them from molding her into a gentlewoman fit for the Emperor’s court. When she is kept away from her own three-day-long, coming-out banquet, she flies out of her palace in a fit of rage, sheds her silk gowns and runs for the hills.
Every storytelling signal is preparing us for this rupture, but nothing prepares us for it to be so breathtaking. Wistful watercolors transform into jagged charcoals, and Kayuga takes to the street like a bat out of hell. But where we anticipate a triumphant return to the simple life, Kaguya finds her home turf desolate, haunted by the ghosts of her expectations.
These ghosts haunt her throughout the 137 indelible minutes of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, whether on the surface or pushed way down below. The glimpses Kaguya gets of her former life vary in mood but always weigh heavily on her conscience. It’s downright paradoxical that such a visually serene film can be torn by such emotional turmoil.
That The Tale of Princess Kaguya doesn’t fail when it defines itself by its own fragility is remarkable. That it succeeds more than we could’ve expected speaks to the power of a born storyteller without an agenda. Emotional twists come in spades, but they never feel like twists. They’re felt deeply, and their seeds are subtly sown throughout the tapestry of the film so that they can blossom in full on their own terms.