The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Takahata Isao directs this 2013 Studio Ghibli piece based on the Japanese legend “The Bamboo-cutter and the Moon Child.” A bamboo-cutter discovers a tiny girl inside a bamboo shoot and takes her home. The bamboo-cutter and his wife decide to raise her as their own, and the “Princess” (as they call her) starts to grow at a rapid pace, hinting at her un-earthly origins. When the bamboo-cutter finds gold and silks in bamboo shoots, he is convinced that the Princess is destined for fame and fortune. The family moves to the city, where the girl’s beauty and talents become the talk of the town. This garners attention from some of the highest-ranking noblemen in the land, but she wants none of them and sets them impossible tasks to accomplish if they wish to gain her hand…

I would highly recommend this film for anyone who is appreciative of animation and illustration. It’s not the easiest of stories of watch, being a tiny bit too long and lacking a classic happy ending. But I definitely enjoyed watching it, despite the sadness at the end. Certainly worth a watch and a worthy contender for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Annie Awards (where it’s up against other films like The Boxtrolls, Big Hero 6, The Book of Life, and The Song of the Sea.)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Good

  • Absolutely gorgeous imagery and animation. The trailers promised beautiful illustrative animation, and the film delivered. The flickering charcoal outlines (the result of frame-by-frame animation) and the delicate watercolours all serve to make it look like traditional Chinese/Japanese paintings come to life. The movie scene now is so saturated with 3D-animated features that a 2D-animated film done as beautifully as this one really stands out.
  • Of particular note should be the sequence where the Princess Kaguya runs away into the woods. The previously fine lines grow thicker and more frenetic as the sequence progresses and the running figure becomes barely more than dashes of black, red and white. You can almost feel the emotion in the very lines of the image. Beautifully done.
  • The movie sticks fairly close to the story (apart from the insertion of her childhood friend, Sutemaru), and this means it stays away from a stereotypical “children’s movie” image by keeping to the sad ending. I don’t like sad endings, but I can appreciate when they are effective and suited to the story. This is one of those.
  • Lovely music by Hisaishi Joe, as always. The man has a definite turn for music that I can only describe as sparkling and magical. I think there’s a good deal of traditional instrumentation in the music for Princess Kaguya, but that is to be expected from a fairytale like this one. There are also a couple of what must be children’s folk songs in the film – I don’t care much for that type of minor-key melody, but it adds to the “Japanese” feel of the film.
  • Princess Kaguya’s plump little handmaiden provides a lot of little comedic touches in the story, which I like. It’s not slapstick comedy, just little things in the background that don’t really amount to much, but they are much-needed little spots of humour.

The Bad

  • The movie is a little over 2 hours long and there are a couple of occasions where the story sags a little. I wondered if it would have been better to have removed two or three of the would-be suitors (there are five), and if excising the character of Sutemaru would have helped. It may have lightened the story, but, hmm… The fact that so many of her suitors turned out to be shallow and the fact that she lost her old friend and possible love of her life add to her sadness and frustration. Her inner turmoil might not have been felt as clearly if those elements had been dropped altogether.
  • The passage of time is not very clear. The Princess grows at an amazingly rapid rate at the beginning but then suddenly seems to freeze at age fifteen or so and never changes in appearance from that point on, so one can’t use her as a yardstick for the passage of time in the movie. The one who does change physically is Sutemaru but that turns out to be rather confusing because at one point, he appears to be still a teenager, getting beaten up for stealing, and then the next time we see him – roughly three years later – he looks like he’s aged ten years and has a wife and child as well. That was slightly baffling.

And the Random

  • I located the English dub of the movie and went through it briefly to see how the American voice cast matched up. Not bad, but I nearly always prefer the original voices.
  • People who like to complain about parents of protagonists in animated movies ought to be happy with this one because both the bamboo-cutter and his wife survive the whole story and are generally good parents. The bamboo-cutter is too eager for his daughter to marry a wealthy man and live a life of luxury, but he does this because he wants her to have the best and it’s not because he seeks advancement for himself. His wife is caring and kind and much wiser than he is, especially when it comes to the princess’s desires.
  • The dream sequence with the princess and Sutemaru is one of those things that I find rather unique to Japanese movies. It’s a dream… Right? It appears to be just a dream when Sutemaru wakes up and hardly any time seems to have passed. And maybe it is just a dream. But you wonder if it’s not just Sutemaru’s dream, but also the Princess’s dream. Could it have been a manifestation of her Moon-spirit powers – that she entered his dream (inception? haha) or caused him to have that dream? Or that it did happen – their reunion, the conversation, the flying – but in a sort of magical parallel dimension (thanks to her true nature as a Moon-spirit) where time passes differently? We never find out for sure.

Got anything to add or say? :D