Film Reviews

Tale of the Princess Kaguya Isao Takahata

Rating - 7/10

Rooted in Japan's oldest extant folktale from the tenth century, Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, Isao Takahata's final animated film (and possibly one of the last of the beloved Studio Ghibli), Tale of the Princess Kaguya [Kaguya-hime no monogatari] is a celebration and condemnation of arbitrary customs of nobility, simultaneously summoning the shades of joy and grief that define the human experience.  Takahata previously planted the seed of this lore in the animated comic strip anthology My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) where daughter Nonoko is born from a bamboo shoot; with this endeavor, the director and his visionary team of painters cultivate a sense of Zen through exuberant and earthy watercolors on a white canvas-like background as meadow greens bleed into flowery blotches of yellows amidst a smattering of oranges, browns, and pinks.  Along with the wonderfully expressive charcoal outlines that grow heavier or lighter based on emotion or exhaustion, the film is warmly enveloped in empathy.  While the titular character (voiced by Aki Asakura in the more meticulous native Japanese/Chloë Grace Moretz in the simplified English dub) is the one who rapidly grows from infant to adolescent in mere weeks like a bamboo shoot (and aptly nicknamed "L'il Bamboo"), the film's leisurely pace is simply enchanting.  Comparable to an illustrious role-playing or adventure game like Clover Studio's handscroll-designed Okami (2006) about the Shinto sun goddess-as-wolf Amaterasu, each is steeped in Eastern mythology and features a bright painterly aesthetic.  At over 130 minutes in length, Tale of the Princess Kaguya's visual graces prevent it from becoming encumbered with convoluted story elements even if inconsistencies are mirrored in its representation of time and Kaguya's own irregular age progression that seems to halt once she departs the nurturing village.

Storybook voiceover introduces the timeless fable in the past tense, as aging bamboo cutter Sanuki no Miyatsuko (Takeo Chii/James Caan) witnesses a tiny robed girl sprouting from a stalk of bamboo in a grove.  Believing her to be a blessing from the heavens, he carries the fragile woodland girl to his village hut when she miraculously transforms into a human baby in his wife (Nobuko Miyamoto/Mary Steenburgen)'s embrace.  Shortly after this new family is born, Miyatsuko discovers a heap of gold pieces and an erupting tapestry of robes in the same field that bore the girl; considering these gifts as further divine intervention, he resolves to shower the child with a luxurious life of a princess in their capital city.  Thus begins Miyatsuko's quest to meticulously cater to tradition, hiring the esteemed Lady Sagami (Atsuko Takahata/Lucy Liu) to educate the nameless princess in royal obedience.  The film's dominant theme of oppression quickly develops, concentrated in a miniature scene where the teenage girl, now named Kaguya (of Shining Light), promptly frees a caged bird that Miyatsuko brings her for companionship.  Refusing to embrace the irrational patriarchy takes on an amusing premise, at least, as she upends the Bamboo Cutter's wishes by casting out a host of five noble suitors on potentially perilous quests to acquire a variety of mythic treasures they hyperbolically offer as analogies to her unseen beauty.  As none of the princes ever bear witness to Kaguya, who's been veiled in the palace behind a shade as tradition has dictated, the film makes a convincing case against the pursuit of idealisms and the projection of one's identity unto others.

By its final twenty minutes, the focus transcends this more tangible dilemma to examine the supernatural elements of Kaguya's origin, as she fears an abduction back to her home (revealed to be the City of the Moon after much foreshadowing).  In this somewhat awkward narrative backtracking, Tale of the Princess Kaguya ultimately feels like it's shirking its prior commentary to celebrate a universally loving perspective.  Kaguya, the Lunarian, seems genuinely happy to be part of this nuclear family on Earth despite Miyatsuko's position as a moral villain; after disobeying her own yearnings, this is a peculiar sentiment, but one that speaks to the complicated nature of deep-rooted relations and forgiveness.  With the rather abrupt transition that paradoxically stunts her character development, the film heads towards an emotionally confusing conclusion.  What it may lack in terms of narrative cohesion, it retains in visual movement imbued with the character's expressive memory.  In the most inspiring moment amidst Kaguya's coming-of-age naming ceremony/banquet, she overhears condemnatory remarks from capital citizens; overcome by despair, she scurries out of the palace in a homesick whirlwind, shedding the kimonos and burden of this lavish life.  The jagged animation remarkably articulates her psychology as if she were a spectre floating above the hillsides distorted by the passage of time and her own nostalgia.  As Kaguya returns to the village only to find the absence of all she once knew, the film surreally juxtaposes a shot of her collapse in a sea of white snow with her awakening in the palace chambers.  When one of the suitors, Prince Kuramochi (Isao Hashizume/Beau Bridges), later returns from the cliffs of Mount Horai brandishing the legendary jeweled branch to win her favor, he beckons Kaguya to gaze upon its majesty; "One look is worth a hundred tales," he proclaims, suggesting the storybook splendor of the film.  It's one that marks the end of an era in Ghibili's world-renowned animation- if only the richness of its hand-painted landscape bled into the absolute grandeur of its mythological interpretation.