The Tale of Princess Kaguya (reviews - page 5)
This page lists information about reviews and articles related to the film The Tale of Princess Kaguya.
22 October 2014
By Harvey Karten
If your high school World History course was like mine, you spent a little time on Greece and Rome, another few weeks on medieval feudalism and the Renaissance in Europe, and tons of hours on Europe since the Industrial Revolution. If your course mentioned Japan at all, it was based on Western imperialism, beginning with Matthew Perry’s “opening” of that country in 1853. (Same goes for China, wherein their history seemed to begin with that country’s fight with Britain in the Opium Wars, African history “began” with 19th Century European imperialism and Latin American history “began” with 16th century conquests by Spain and Portugal. Then again, America must have been created by a new Big Bang in 1492.)
If Japan’s recorded history actually took root at about the time that August Caesar was presiding in Rome, then that country’s legends—unlike Greek Mythology—was and is a mystery to American students. The earliest recorded Japanese legend was set to print in the Tenth Century, that of a woman who was sent from the moon to the Earth, appearing to an elderly couple in the sticks rather than in the capital. Now, those of us with cinematic ambitions broader than those of moviegoers content with the latest goings-on of Tom and Jerry, Donald, Elmer and Mickey, have a chance to take in a technically incredible animated feature, eight years in the making, about this beautiful young woman, brought to life courtesy of Isao Takahata’s restrained and loving brush-stroke creation. “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” an interpretation of the legend of “Taketori monogatari,” is not only a tale told through pictures and seen from the title character’s point of view but serves as an allegory, particularly a condemnation of materialism, narcissism, and artifice. Kaguya herself runs the gamut of human emotions from ecstasy to boredom to suicidal depression, and given its 137 minutes of running time seems to leave no details out.
The story opens on Okina (“old fella”) who makes his meager living as a bamboo cutter, and his wife Ona (“woman), when Okina is startled by observing a bamboo stalk that grow to full height in seconds, holding enclosed within the tiny, doll-like figure of a baby who they will later learn came to them from the moon. Though advanced in age, Ona begins nursing her, the couple noting that the figure, whom he calls princess but who is later named Kayuga, is growing leaps and bounds by the day.
Kayuga is teased by the local riff-raff but, though one of them, a handsome hunter named Sutemaru, will become her love interest. When Okina discovers gold dust and silks, her princess’ heavenly dowry, he takes his family to the court in the capital of Kyoto, settling into a mansion and getting the princess tutored by a governess—whose rigidity about the uptight rules of the court form the leading comedic scenes of the legend.
Kayuga is courted by five nobles, none of whom appealing to her. She offers her hand in marriage to anyone who could complete some Herculean tasks, considered impossible. The nobles for the most part bring back fakes, all symbolic of the fake royal life that the princess is living.
If you want to know how Kayuga fares after changing from crying infant to rebellious teen to a court favorite who wants only to return to the woods, you’ll of course see the movie. The film is not without flaws, the principal ones being its excessive length (the story can adequately be covered, methinks, in 100 minutes) and the overlong takes of several scenes. You may be able to choose either the Japanese version with English subtitles (the more recommended choice) or the version dubbed in English principally by American actors [...]. The PG rating is, of course, kid-friendly, as is the distributing studio.
Sound On Sight
22 May 2014
By Zach Lewis
Taking many of its features from Studio Ghibli mainstays, Isao Takahata’s latest film The Tale of Princess Kaguya tackles an age-old folktale from Japan, bringing the studio’s warmth and childhood imagination to a mythic scale. It’s based upon The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, with a visual style imitating children’s storybooks or perhaps the scroll of the tale itself. It’s an act of wonderment to be in the presence of fluid, beautiful hand-drawn animation in a time clamoring for more and more computers at play, but the nostalgic value only barely supersedes its rough-and-tumble approach to adapting the anti-fairy-tale to the big screen.
The tale begins within nature, as a humble bamboo cutter going about his work discovers a radiant stalk amongst his field. Inside, he finds a fairy-sized princess, a gift from heaven, that transforms into a newborn as he transports it home. As the bamboo rewards him with riches and clothes, he believes that heaven is telling him to give the little girl, growing at an exponential rate, the life of royalty. They travel to the capital where Princess Kaguya must separate her previous “hillbilly” life of nature with her newfound royal status and all the pretensions that come with it. Her easy mastery of everything she tries combined with her humility and natural beauty leads to rumors across the land about her mysterious perfection, granting her the richest yet most superficial suitors. The pain they cause her reveals her magical origin from spiritual moon people to whom she must return.
The most immediate sensations throughout the movie are dictated by the minimalistic style of animation fully relying upon chalk, watercolors, and light pencil work. It doesn’t often flaunt itself, but, like picture books, help to give a visual starting point to the viewer’s imagination. This isn’t to say that the animation itself lacks imagination — there are several moments where a simple shift in color palettes or an imitation of camera pans and tracking shots help reveal emotion and depth to the world past mere storybook ambitions. Takahata’s animators are also well-versed in what Roger Ebert lovingly referred to as “pillow shots”: brief moments to take in the natural environment, meditate on a subtle human expression, or even include a POV shot from a deer. From these, we may gauge the tone of the story: warm and inviting despite the tensions within Kaguya’s choices and changes.
Its lovely visual atmosphere and analog score (thanks to Joe Hisaishi’s string-laden orchestral movements) serve it best in its sporadic scenes of childhood adjustment, but the overarching narrative, driven from a type of storytelling centuries old, appears a bit lacking. Kaguya’s mystical qualities, being vaulted from the heavens in the beginning and riding back to the moon upon a sort of Buddhist-Elijah cloud display, are placed in the background or merely hinted throughout the majority of the story. It separates the tale into a confusing mix of both fish-out-of-water and humble royalty stories, only sometimes coming together for anecdotal effect. There’s a nice connection between Princess Kaguya leaving the pastoral landscape for an unwarranted position in the capital and her leaving the earth for the moon in that they both attempt to capture the nature of “home” and the wearisome process of finding what she may really want. But these are never fully explored to a satisfactory degree: not a problem for the original poem, but lacking for a 137-minute feature.
Because of its questionable structure, the pure emotional value of the film can flounder, finding itself between mythological world-building and genuine melodrama, but never rightly infusing the two or pushing one to a lively extent. Despite the weakened force, it has a surprisingly progressive approach to gender politics, forming Kaguya’s aspirations in the polar opposite direction of most Western fairy-tales as she rejects her princess status and the wealth of suitors who claim her as their “treasure”. Combined with the inviting tone and entrancing illustrations, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is unmistakably Ghibli and will happily appeal to that audience regardless of adaptation-wrought meandering.
Sydney Morning Herald
3 October 2014
By Philippa Hawker
Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio founded in 1985, has been one of the most important creative forces in contemporary screen culture, producing work of singular beauty, spirit and inventiveness. Its best-known figure is Hayao Miyazaki, the filmmaker who has given us masterpieces such as My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the work of one of the studio's co-founders, Isao Takahata, who is less well-known and less prolific than Miyazaki, but no less intriguing. It is his first film in 14 years and possibly his last. Both men, now in their seventies, have said that they have directed their final features.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya has a distinctive, distilled look, a little different from what we have come to expect from Ghibli. Takahata has opted for a watercolour aesthetic, with a sense of movement coming from flowing brush strokes or jagged pencil lines. There is a lively immediacy in what we see; it is almost as if a line is being drawn right in front of us. Single frames or stills don't do the film justice.
In this adaptation of a famous Japanese folktale, an elderly bamboo-cutter discovers a tiny, Thumbelina-sized baby girl in a tree in the forest. He takes her home to his wife; in her arms the baby suddenly morphs into a normal-sized baby. She lives with the couple, plays with local children, and keeps growing apace. The children call her Little Bamboo, because she grows so fast. One particular playmate, a boy called Sutemaru, means more to her than anyone else.
In another trip to the forest, the bamboo cutter finds gold and silken clothes hidden in a tree; this convinces him that the child is a princess, and this is her dowry. He decides that she must be brought up accordingly. So he acquires a mansion in the city, and sets about preparing the girl for the life of a noble. The name Kaguya, which means shining, is bestowed on her. Suitors call and ask for her hand; it seems as if she has left the world of the countryside far behind.
The visual style shifts and changes as the story unfolds, slowly and in somewhat episodic fashion, over more than two hours. We see the detail of Little Bamboo's beloved natural world, as well as the elegant dimensions of her new life. There are some striking sequences that reflect the complexity of her emotions. One particular highlight is a frantic, hectically expressed fantasy of escape; a soaring dream of flight that comes near the end of the film is filled with both joy and melancholy.
There are light-hearted moments but there is something about Princess Kaguya's experience that is moving and tragic. It is hard – perhaps even impossible – for her to become who she wants to be, or to live the life she might have aspired to.
21 May 2014
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a rich and astonishing swan song for Japanese director Isao Takahata, says Robbie Collin
By Robbie Collin
Following the meticulous grandeur of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, here is an equally extraordinary, but very different, farewell film from another master of Japanese animation. The Tale of Princess Kaguya, from Isao Takahata, Miyazaki’s fellow co-founder of beloved Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, is an eerie and plaintive folk tale, alive with sadness and drawn with an ecstatic freeness that recalls the animated adaptations of Raymond Briggs – The Snowman, Father Christmas, When the Wind Blows – far more than any other Ghibli film.
Takahata’s film, which played in the Directors’ Fortnight programme at Cannes this afternoon, looks like an ancient scroll-painting come to life: its characters, sketched in charcoal, crackle with expressive energy, while loose, vivid ink-strokes become dappled sunlight, bursting blossoms and falling snow. In one astonishing sequence, as beautiful and imaginative as anything Ghibli has yet created, a character fleeing a palace becomes nothing much more distinct than a flutter of red fabric, surrounded by an expressionistic whirl of snowy hillsides and tangled trees.
The plot is based on a 10th-century Japanese legend about a poor woodcutter who finds, in the forest one morning, a tiny, doll-like girl sprouting from a bamboo shoot. He brings her home, clasped in his hands, and suddenly she puffs out and pinkens: then, with a satisfying pop, she transforms into a human baby.
The woodcutter and his wife raise the child as best they can – they call her Princess, although the local children prefer Little Bamboo, because she grows at fearsome speed. When a cache of gold and fine fabrics is discovered in the same bamboo grove, the woodcutter and his wife decide the gods must want their girl to be raised as a noblewoman, so they start a new life in the city, in a lavish mansion, surrounded by handmaidens who glide around like teardrops wrapped in silk.
Various princes try their best to woo the princess, who has now been given the name Kaguya, after reaching her teenage years in the space of a few weeks. But courtly life soon loses its appeal, and Kaguya pines for her simpler, country life – as well as wondering when the spirits that first placed her inside that bamboo shoot will come back to reclaim her.
Like Miyazaki’s final film, this feels like an intensely personal project for Takahata. The hillsides and forests of its early scenes recall Heidi, A Girl of the Alps, an animated series on which he and Miyazaki collaborated in the Seventies. (The baby princess moves exactly like babies do, and the way she toddles after frogs and nuzzles wild piglets is impossibly cute.)
Then, in its later scenes, the film becomes a kind of Buddhist Close Encounters of the Third Kind: as intensely but playfully spiritual as Takahata’s not-widely-seen-enough 1994 film Pom Poko, with flying arrows transformed into garlands of flowers, and dreamy flights across meadows and lakes, while larger themes of mortality and impermanence are also addressed.
There are certainly lulls in the film’s middle act, as Kaguya wrestles with the various niceties of life at the medieval Japanese court, and at more than two hours, the tale as a whole feels slightly overextended. But for the most part, this is a rich and astonishing swan song for Takahata, whose love of mischief and tender, expressionistic style have been essential steering forces at Studio Ghibli.
23 November 2013
By Christopher O'Keeffe
Studio Ghibli's second feature of the year has arrived with the release of director Takahata Isao's The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Due to a slight delay it arrives roughly three months behind Miyazaki's The Wind Rises, the original plan being to put the two films out together for the first time since 1988 when the two directors had Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbour Totoro on release simultaneously. Now that Miyazaki's final feature has been and gone from the standard Ghibli position at the top of the box-office and is getting ready to be shipped off to the rest of the world it's time to get a look at the studio's latest.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a 10th century Japanese folk story which, despite some minor changes and an added love interest, is followed faithfully here. An old bamboo cutter, Okina is walking in the woods when he comes across a shoot of bamboo that springs from the ground. Within the shoot is a tiny girl whom he takes home to his wife. Recognizing the girl as a gift from the gods, the childless couple agree to raise her as their own at which point she morphs into a real baby to the shock of the old man. The old woman, Ouna, takes this metamorphosis in her stride, she's also fairly relaxed about the amusing change to her own body that occurs when the question of how she will feed the baby arises. The girl learns and grows faster than the other children but she is happy with her parents and friends in the forest. When the old man finds great riches and clothes fit for a princess hidden magically within bamboo their lives change drastically as the family are uprooted to a great house in the city, where the now very beautiful young woman is dubbed Princess Kaguya and must learn to behave like a lady and eventually find a husband.
The most immediate and striking element here is the beautiful animation which works wonderfully to evoke the idea of a fairytale, having the appearance of an ancient Japanese emakimono, a picture scroll used for telling stories. In relation to the studio's other films the watercolor tones are most similar to Takahata's previous work My Neighbors the Yamadas, although the film's style is completely different to that modern family comedy. While shots of people in the fields or in the background of the city are accurate and lifelike simulating the working culture of the time, the main characters are brilliantly realized, some being highly stylized caricatures, some more realistic, all unique. The opening scenes with Kaguya as a baby capture so wonderfully a child's early movements, her adopted parents are all warmth and smiles, her teacher is prim and proper, the suitors are arrogant and flawed and Kaguya's handmaiden, despite her face being drawn with about three brush strokes, is hilarious. On the whole it's breath-taking but further flashes of brilliance make it transcendent, including a stunning scene when the young princess flees from her home into the woods causing the delicate lines to turn a deeper black and solid shapes to fall away into a speeding blur of swirling color, capturing the fear and confusion of the moment.
Studio Ghibli has created characters time and again which, while heroic and fantastical are always recognizably human, particularly it's young female protagonists, and this film is no exception. It's the warmth of the characters that really make the film so touching. The old couple are adorable and it's moving to watch the child learn and grow, so perfectly rendered in the delicate animation. The film is not without humor, found in the country girl's stubbornness in learning how to behave like a princess and in the ridiculousness of the rules and people in her new court life. Kaguya is a protagonist at once human and otherworldly and it's easy to relate to her fear of marriage and pining for the forest home we watched her grow up in. By the time the film heads towards its finale, the themes of growth and loss lead to an emotional climax.
The general consensus in Japan is that The Wind Rises was popular with adults but bored children, while this film has a much broader appeal. Takahata has always been second to Miyazaki as the face of the studio but it's not that his films are any less brilliant, his characters, with the exception of Pom Poko are just a little less cuddly. The Tale of Princess Kaguya should delight children and adults alike, in a way that Takahata's previous works have not. It will be hard to displace Grave of the Fireflies as Takahata's masterpiece for the sheer gravity of that film, but this comes close with its elegant beauty and evocative retelling of a timeless tale.
Under the Radar
16 October 2014
By Austin Trunick
One of the elements that has typically set Studio Ghibli releases apart from their animated kin is their portrayal of children. It’s perhaps most visible in Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved My Neighbor Totoro and Isao Takahata’s heart-wrenching Grave of the Fireflies, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a child character among the studio’s output that doesn’t look, feel, and act like a real kid. They giggle, cry, fight; we watch each worldly revelation as it dawns upon their little faces. The young heroine in Takahata’s latest film, Princess Kaguya, is no different – as this magical child matures rapidly from baby to adult, we watch her in every stage of growth and not one feels the least bit false. It’s an impressive display of character tracking from a group of storytellers who have long proven they know children better than anyone else.
While chopping bamboo, an old, poor woodcutter stumbles on a miniature princess sleeping inside a glowing stalk. He carries her home in the palms of his hands and presents her to his wife; the princess transforms into a human-sized baby, and the elderly couple raises her as their own. The woodcutter accepts Princess Kaguya – or Li’l Bamboo, as she’s known to the other children – as a blessing sent from heaven. As she grows into an adult at an unnatural speed, further blessings arrive inside the bamboo stalks; gold and silks that allow the woodcutter to build a mansion in the capital for his little girl, and raise her into the nobility he feels she’s destined to become.
Based on a Japanese folk tale, the most striking element of this new feature from Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbor the Yamadas) is its art style. Drawn in rough, sketchy lines colored in by soft watercolors, The Tale of Princess Kaguya has the magical feel of a moving painting. (Or, to put it into terms comics fans will easily understand: this film looks like a Calvin and Hobbes Sunday strip come to life.) Although the film’s last act may feel like an unexpected turn to those of us unfamiliar with the old folk tale, the movie is a gorgeously entrancing experience to be equally enjoyed by children and adults.
21 March 2014
Isao Takahata's retelling of the oldest recorded Japanese narrative is a visionary tour de force.
By Maggie Lee
An animated interpretation of “Taketori monogatari,” the 10th-century Japanese tale of a damsel who came to Earth from the moon, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is a visionary tour de force, morphing from a childlike gambol into a sophisticated allegory on the folly of materialism and the evanescence of beauty. Inspired by Eastern brush painting, this ethereal new feature from 78-year-old helmer Isao Takahata takes hand-drawn animation to new heights of fluidity. Studio Ghibli’s second release of the year has struck B.O. gold, earning roughly $22.7 million to date; at 137 minutes, it’s a bit taxing for tykes, but should get glowing reviews from anime fans upon its slated U.S. bow this year through GKids.
Eight years in the making and with a budget of roughly $49 million, Takahata’s pet project actually dates back to 55 years ago, when he assisted helmer Tomu Uchida in an eventually aborted attempt to bring “Taketori monogatari” to the bigscreen. (Hailed as Japan’s oldest recorded narrative, the story has been adapted many times, notably in Kon Ichikawa’s live-action 1987 version, “Princess From the Moon.”) Liberated from the neorealism that is his trademark (“Grave of the Fireflies,” “Only Yesterday”), Takahata embraces fantasy and abstract symbolism here to wondrous effect. Viewers used to Hollywood toons packed with snappy setpieces and crowd-pleasing gags may be underwhelmed by the film’s graceful rhythms and reserved storytelling, but that won’t keep them from marveling at the sheer virtuosity of its artwork: “Kaguya” means “shining” in Japanese, and fittingly, rich contrasts of light and darkness define every scene.
Bamboo cutter Okina (literally, “old fella”), voiced by Takeo Chii, chances upon a royal-robed nymph, as dainty as Thumbelina, inside a bamboo stalk. Once he brings her home, she swells into a human-sized infant, and Okina’s wife, Ona (“woman”), voiced by Nobuko Miyamoto, miraculously begins nursing her.
Okina calls his child (Aki Asakura) “Princess,” but other tykes call her Takenoko because of her exponential growth. Her childhood, full of rough-and-tumble activity in a pastoral world, recalls the daffy slapstick and charming naivete of “Panda! Go Panda!,” the 1972-73 series directed by Takahata and written by Hayao Miyazaki. The screenplay for “Kaguya,” co-written by Takahata and Rika Sakaguchi, also adds an original character, Sutemaru (Kengo Kora), a young hunter who becomes Takenoko’s love interest. The images here are drawn with simple, soft brushstrokes and painted in watery pastel colors; the veneration of nature, a hallmark of Studio Ghibli’s animation, is apparent in the picturesque flowers in bloom.
Then Okina discovers gold dust and exquisite silks in the bamboo forest, which he believes are Takenoko’s dowry from heaven. Convinced she’s intended for grander things, he and Ona take the girl to the capital, Kyoto, where they settle into a magnificent mansion and hire governess Sagami (Atsuko Takahata) to make Takenoko a lady. But she feels homesick and stifled by this opulent new lifestyle, her plight harking back to the country-city dichotomy of the 1974 TV anime series “Heidi, Girl of the Alps,” which Takahata and Miyazaki developed together. Takenoko’s defiance of Sagami’s stuffy airs and warped cosmetic practices not only parodies the slavish pursuit of artificial beauty, but also questions the concept of artifice itself.
Okina presents his daughter to influential courtier Inbe no Akita (Tatekawa Shinosuke), who names her “Kaguya,” for the luminous aura she radiates. As he spreads word of her peerless beauty, she attracts swarms of suitors, including the Mikado, or Emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura II), five of whom she orders to perform Herculean tasks. The film captures the spirit of the tale’s most famous episode, turning the suitors’ gambits into brilliant spectacles and scintillating flights of fantasy, all while satirizing the materialism and possessiveness that too often pass for love. Just as the suitors’ motives prove questionable, so their actions yield consequences that progressively darken the tone of the yarn. Even Kaguya’s relationship with Sutemaru, which starts off as a buoyant, youthful romance, culminates in a melancholy twist that overturns fairy-tale expectations.
Although Takahata has stated that he wanted to explore crime and punishment in his version of the legend, the film never dwells on how Kaguya came to Earth, or why; instead, the story spans the dramatic stages of a woman’s growth, from carefree moppet to rebellious teenager and finally to sensuous maiden. Kazuo Oga’s art direction runs the gamut in reflecting these phases, with a wide array of gorgeous kimonos and illustration styles. While the protagonist’s beauty is the sine qua non of the story, visualizing it through animation presents a challenge — one the filmmakers meet with a versatility that can make Kaguya look like a girl-next-door type one moment and a figure of regal composure the next.
The only shortcoming of this characterization lies in Kaguya’s relationship with her adopted parents, which doesn’t convey enough genuine affection; nor is her disdain for wealth or suitors given enough of a foundation. Okina, whose vanity could have been explored in greater depth, remains a buffoon.
Tech credits are out of this world. The animation sports a two-dimensional look reminiscent of watercolors, and yet movements flow with exceptional grace; even shots of landscapes and objects sometimes appear to unfold like a scroll. Illustrations of period architecture and props are rendered with diaphanous subtlety, as when Kaguya darts toward the moon, or in the film’s transporting ending, an aesthetic fusion equally inspired by Dun Huang murals and hippie music. Joe Hisaishi’s earthy, folk-inflected score eschews his usual orchestral heaviness.
The Washington Post
30 October 2014
By Michael O'Sullivan
If any animation house has the chops to tackle a 10th-century Japanese fable about an otherworldly young woman who mysteriously pops up inside the stalk of a bamboo plant, it is Studio Ghibli. The makers of the acclaimed “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle” and other fanciful features are more than up to the task with “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” a gorgeous, magical and melancholy fantasia about the joy and pain of human existence.
The art — hand-drawn, of course — is lyrical, with the look of a pencil-and- watercolor sketch. The story, about a beautiful but alien creature who grows up to break hearts, including her own, is poignant. If there’s a flaw, it’s that the story is overly long. At 2- 1 / 4 hours, it feels like an epic, though its subject matter is gossamer-thin.
Based on the Japanese folktale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” “Princess Kaguya” centers on a pretty young woman discovered inside a sprouting bamboo plant by a childless couple. Originally the size of a mouse, yet fully developed, Kaguya (or Li’l Bamboo, as she is affectionately known) quickly grows to normal size, developing a friendship with a handsome country boy. But the bamboo cutter, who also has chanced upon a cache of gold, decides to raise his adoptive daughter as a princess, hoping to marry her off to some member of the aristocracy whom she doesn’t love.
As with any cartoon princess — even a 10th-century one — this doesn’t sit well. But if you think that “Princess Kaguya” is a story about girl power or true love triumphing over an arranged marriage, think again. The story, in which five high-born suitors must attempt to retrieve impossible objects before Kaguya will even consider their proposals, is dark and involves the death of one of her swains. This is a movie that’s made more for grown-up tastes and expectations than for little girls running around the house dressed up like Disney princesses.
That said, the movie is being offered in both a subtitled, Japanese-language version in the evening and a more family-friendly English-dubbed version during the day, with Chloë Grace Moretz and Darren Criss providing the voices of the princess and her rustic beau.
Directed and co-written by Isao Takahata (“Grave of the Fireflies”), the film may have no conventional happily-ever-after ending, but it’s more deeply satisfying and complex than similar, Hollywood-produced fare — like fine wine compared with Kool-Aid.
23 October 2014
Hand-drawn animation from legendary director Isao Takahata and a voice cast that also includes James Caan make this a formidable Oscar contender
By Inkoo Kang
Civilization has a way of transforming the most fundamental aspects of life into frills and indecencies. Under its oppressive, distortive might, language is deformed into florid flattery, love into empty ceremony, and faces into long-suffering canvases, from which eyebrows are painfully plucked and artificial ones drawn on just because.
Culture, refinement, and sophistication — all the hallmarks of an “advanced” civilization — are put on trial in Isao Takahata's “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” an exquisite, hand-drawn marvel and an alternatingly jubilant and heartrending epic pastoral. In a strong year for animation (“Big Hero 6,” “The Boxtrolls,” “The Book of Life,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” “The Lego Movie”), it's an instant Oscar contender.
Based on a Japanese folktale, the latest tour de force from Studio Ghibli encompasses the spectrum of life and emotions, reserving a keen ache for nature and its splendors. You can almost smell the flowers, rendered in confident lines and watercolor pastels, as they thrust their petals out into the world and bloom into storybook blossoms before your eyes.
And there's more euphoria and exhilaration to come. From the moment that the lowly Bamboo Cutter (voiced by James Caan) discovers the Princess (Chloë Grace Moretz) being birthed by a lotus blossom, he feels blessed by the heavens. He wipes his palms on his pants before reaching out to cradle the yawning, apple-cheeked infant in his hands for the first time, and before long, she grows impatiently fast into a savant at every activity and art (singing, weaving, koto-playing, feminine passivity) thrown her way.
kaguya_hires_6It's wondrous to watch the enchanted Princess, given a title but not a name, swell instantly into twice her size in the arms of the Bamboo Cutter's wife (Mary Steenburgen). But the film is more lavish with its brief odes of the miracles of childhood, from the Princess's first few tumbling crawls to the little girl's rapturous twirls in nearby forests and fields.
For company, she craves only the adoration of her mother and father and the camaraderie of several rowdy village boys, led by the kindly Sutemaru (Darren Criss), who calls her Lil’ Bamboo for her rapid development into a young woman.
Then fate — or civilization, or womanhood — intercedes. The Bamboo Cutter whisks the Princess to the capital, where he builds her a mansion and buys her a title with wealth begotten from more supernatural discoveries in the woods. Thus begins the beauty treatments, lessons in royal rituals, and long courtships the Princess, newly named Kaguya by a nobleman, unhappily endures out of deference to her father.
Per Lady Sagami's (Lucy Liu) instruction, Kaguya submits to teeth blackening (blue-blooded women shouldn't expose their teeth, apparently) and shuts herself off in claustrophobic closets when her many suitors come calling (the upper classes don't get a peek of their betrothed until the wedding day).
The baroque intricacies of life among the rich and gossipy is ripe for satire, but the film plays it mostly straight, focusing on Kaguya's dwindling opportunities for quiet rebellion, as well as her father's and Lady Sagami's narrow-minded conceptions of female happiness. It's a tragic and depressing look at princessdom, but Takahata (“Grave of the Fireflies,” “Pom Poko”) wisely resists any quick fix with a dose of girl power.
Instead of the kind of feminist revisionism of traditional fairy tales we've had lately from Disney with “Brave,” “Frozen” and “Maleficent,” Takahata ultimately frames his story as a family tale that, especially toward the end, feels both too ethereal to relate to real-life concerns and exceedingly forgiving of patriarchal sins. The proto-anime visual style adds to a sense that the film could be a relic from another era — and its messages could be, too.
It's when Kaguya's supernatural roots are revealed that the film's Japanese origins, and assumption of cultural knowledge on the part of the viewer, interfere with its resolution. A certain familiarity with medieval Japanese folklore seems necessary to understand its nuances. Lacking such knowledge, I still found the ending stalwartly poignant, if also a bit confusing.
Fortunately, the rest of the film doesn't seem to suffer from such cultural gaps. The natural world it details are brought to wiggling, waking, swirling life, while the capital's pomp and pageantry are depicted with unexpected dark humor and an undercurrent of sorrow. Looming over both is the moon: a beacon of hope in the night, but an unreliable companion when day breaks.
29 November 2013
The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kaguyahime, or Princess Kaguya, is the heroine of “Taketori Monogatari” (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), which is known as Japan’s oldest narrative. Everyone in Japan knows the story: A baby girl emerged from a shining stalk of bamboo and was raised by an old bamboo cutter, Okina, and his wife, Ouna. But a magical destiny awaits her. It turns out that she came from the moon, and eventually she must return.
“Kaguyahime no Monogatari” (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) is a movie that may surprise viewers who already know the tale, thanks to the creative efforts of director Isao Takahata to transform the unearthly heroine into a flesh-and-blood character.
Why does Kaguyahime come to Earth and return to the moon? The old fairy tale never clearly answers these questions. While some passages offer hints, they were apparently not enough to satisfy Takahata.
The director was unsatisfied with the tale’s silence regarding how Kaguyahime’s feelings change. The key to creating a realistic story and adapting it into an animated film appeared to lie in exploring the heroine’s emotional life.
The most splendid moments of the film are the early scenes set in a mountain village. The baby’s rapid growth is illustrated through the flexibility in her movements. Okina and Ouna are filled with joy as they watch their giggling infant grow up. As she grows into a little girl, she runs around the mountains and becomes fond of an older boy. And what a lively girl she is. What you see on the screen is nothing less than a living, breathing girl.
The film reveals her inner thoughts as she revels in the joy of being alive, then turns into a psychological portrait of the princess after she is brought to the capital in the film’s latter half.
Confined in a house while receiving the education to become a princess, she finds every passing day of her life has become monotonous. She is disillusioned to learn the motives of the noblemen who court her and gradually begins to lose the ability to feel true happiness. As a result, she eventually becomes fed up with life on Earth.
The stark contrast between a carefree life surrounded by nature and the circumscribed life of the city resembles the world we live in today. Innocent children, too, must grow up and adjust to societal norms. Only as grownups do many of us realize the significance of what we’ve lost. Even so, we have no choice but to continue living in this world.
By describing the misfortune of Kaguyahime, who was unable to go on living such a life, Takahata confronts the audience with questions about the meaning of life. In doing so, the director transforms the fairy tale into the life story of a real human being.
The director’s intention to let the audience imagine an alternate story beyond the screen is successfully achieved through his chosen method of expression.
For example, images that appear to be watercolor sketches often contain blank space, giving the audience room for their own imagination to operate. This is part of what might be called “the joy of seeing” for filmgoers.
It was also very surprising to see the princess’ anger conveyed with just a few simple brush strokes. As our eyes have gotten used to images rendered in fine detail, this is rather refreshing.
This is a work that marries animation techniques with profound thought.