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The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Blu-ray + DVD
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This animated tale is produced by Studio Ghibli, and directed and co-written by Isao Takahata, based on the folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Found inside a shining stalk of bamboo by an old bamboo cutter and his wife, a tiny girl grows rapidly into an exquisite young lady. The mysterious young princess enthralls all who encounter her - but ultimately she must confront her fate, the punishment for her crime.
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None of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya really pampers you on any level, and it certainly requires your sense of wonder to match its very own. Film enthusiasts will adore The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, while regular moviegoers may initially struggle with both the animation and pace of the plot. Like the recent The Wind Rises, this movie isn't concerned with needing to explain everything to you. Right from the unique visual style, it seems to already know it's different to begin with. Nonetheless, this is an excellent film for older children and beyond.
This movie is adapted from an old Japanese folktale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Those familiar with the original story won't find any huge deviations from the film, and probably the most notable difference is the smaller role that the Emperor plays (there are others that can't be written without spoiling a key plot element). Here's the general premise: A bamboo cutter and his wife stumble upon a girl the size of their palms. As she grows quickly to normal size within the village and the couple takes on the role of parents, they all eventually move to a mansion in the capital when the bamboo cutter finds heaps of gold, a sign he interprets that the girl is of royalty and must be raised as such.
Hence, she becomes Princess Kaguya, and is taught to adapt to her new lifestyle, which she struggles with throughout the movie. It eventually turns into a trigger for her sadness that the film wonderfully captures without resorting to cliches or cluttered dialogue. This is a big reason why the film feels like such a classic even before the closing credits roll, as it has the smart storytelling frankness to match its one-of-a-kind animation. There are plenty of adorable and funny moments to complement its more serious ones. It also has all the subtleties characteristic of a Studio Ghibli film, whether it is the growing sound of a little baby as Kaguya twirls under a cherry blossom tree in one moment, or the very meaningful tears in her eyes in another moment.
If there’s one minor complaint, the twist towards the last act is rather abrupt and requires the audience to shift their attention to some extent. Bear in mind that this crucial moment is also part of the original folktale, so this is not to fault the source material but its placement in the movie. The main problem is how awkward it feels for a change in the story that the film only gave very minor hints to build up. Then again, that's why it's a twist, and like those from many past film classics, you'll either love it or hate it. Moreover, this does nothing to ruin the overall experience. In fact, it only gives way for even more beautiful animation!
For all its hand-drawn artwork and narrative that feels out of place in the 21st century, it strips away all of those contemporary tropes seen in today’s films, and what’s left is something unexpectedly organic and accessible to the audience. Teenagers will relate to Kaguya’s complex emotions, while parents will sympathize with the bamboo cutter’s actions, understanding that he has only the best intentions for the princess. All of the emotions that The Tale of the Princess Kaguya perfects are actually unsurprising given the resume of its director, Isao Takahata. His work in anime spans across six different decades, and includes directing Grave of the Fireflies and the underrated Only Yesterday. Takahata’s focus on fragile expressions gives his works lasting impact, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, definitely a film that history will place as a classic in due time, is no exception.
The whole movie is steeped in cultural references, for example just a few minutes into the movie there are references to growing seasons, and when things bloom, the Bamboo Cutter says "I've never seen a Bamboo shoot before the plum blossoms," and the movie illustrates the passage of time though what's blooming, something unfamiliar to those of us in the US. Even still, the movie explains much of the nuance of the time through Princess Kaguya's instructor so it doesn't leave you lost.
I do greatly appreciate many of the feminist undertones throughout the movie, one of the reasons I wish I'd been more familiar with the original, as they're powerful denouncements of the traditional Japanese way of thinking. My jaw dropped when I head Kaguya's reaction to her teacher in the middle of the movie.
The art style, as mentioned in many other reviews, is truly unique, and masterfully rendered. What caught my eye was the use of the background as another way of expressing emotion in the scene. It's sparse during the melancholy times, and rich during the more joyful times. Of course, the attention to detail remains as with any Ghibli film. Little Bamboo struggling to carry two bamboo shoots, sets one down, and misses the basket trying to put one in the first time.
Some say the movie's melancholy is unusual for Ghibli, but I feel melancholy is present many films, punctuated by a deep sense of loss, even when wrapped in hope and happiness. Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and of course the Wind Rises are perfect examples of this.