THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA
I love Studio Ghibli films. My favourite being Kiki’s Delivery Service. Love. Sadly, Studio Ghibli is shutting down its feature film department but one of its last films is now in theatres — The Tale of Princess Kaguya. I watched it during the Vancouver International Film Festival, and thankfully watched the Japanese version with English subtitles (and not the dubbed US version). Watch the trailer above. If interested in my take of the film, click below!
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Kaguyahime no Monogatari)
[originally written for Schema Magazine — the editor most probably paired this down from my draft]
Studio Ghibli is often synonymous with its most well-known, and recently retired, animator, Miyazaki Hayao (Totoro forever!), even though it is also home to a handful of creative geniuses including the reclusive Takahata Isao who gave the world one of the most sob-worthy anime films of all time with Grave of the Fireflies. And, as Studio Ghibli slows down its feature film productions, Takahata delivers an exquisite swan song with The Tale of Princess Kaguya.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya delights in its simple sketched lines, charcoal drawings and watercolours. The film almost looks unfinished, like a rendered storyboard idea that is being hand-cranked to move in a flip-book style. This is not at all a hinderance; rather this style gives the story a nostalgic and charming aura. Take that, Pixar!
These simple sketches also provide the appropriate feel for a story based on a 10th century Japanese folktale. The Tale of Princess Kaguya begins with an elderly bamboo cutter who comes across a glowing bamboo stalk that unfolds to reveal what looks like an ornamental doll, resplendent in golden robes and crown – a princess. The bamboo cutter is convinced the heavens have blessed his family with the gift of this divine princess and he vows to provide for her in a manner right for royalty.
We then watch as the divine princess transforms into a gurgling baby who supernaturally grows daily (!) into a toddler and soon into a young woman. All the while, she gleefully plays with the village children in the hills, bamboo groves, and forests of the countryside. They give her the nickname, Takenoko, or “bamboo shoot,” since she grows just as quickly as a tender bamboo shoot develops into a strong bamboo stalk.
These countryside scenes engage all the senses with the scent of fresh air as it moves amongst the trees, the sound of cicadas chirping in the background, and the taste of melon as the children slurp up the sweet juice. While the princess is enjoying her childhood in the mountain village, the bamboo cutter is using the heavenly gift of gold he has found in yet another glowing bamboo stalk to set up a noble household in the capital. Soon, the reluctant princess is moved to the capital to live a noble life.
In the capital, a noble lady from the royal court is procured to teach the princess about noble airs and graces. Suitors soon call for her hand in marriage. To complete her noble status she is given the noble name Princess Kaguya for her “shining and glittering” beauty. While this name reflects her outer beauty, it is her childhood nickname Takenoko which celebrates her journey since her “unbending strength” (as bamboo is known for) allows her to experience all the emotions — from joy, love and pleasure to sadness, anger and regret.
While all the material riches are meant to make her happy, Princess Kaguya obediently goes through the motions to please her father. It is in the scenes of life in the capital that the film slows, in stark comparison to her time in the countryside where the pace frolics in dizzying speeds to reflect her joy and glee.
To soon, the celestial world beckons Princess Kaguya to leave her earthly home as is her destiny. Princess Kaguya’s ephemeral time on earth is foreshadowed in one of the last scenes, when she returns to her childhood mountain home where she rapturously dances under the cherry blossoms, that bloom much like clouds from heaven and act as a visual symbol of the fleeting nature of life.