The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Studio Ghibli will always occupy a soft spot in the hearts of people who have grown up with its works. Despite not being “anime” fans, many of my friends profess to love all things Ghibli – from the enthralling fantasy epic that is Spirited Away, right down to the whirlwind romance adventure that is Howl’s Moving Castle. And seeing how Princess Kaguya may well be Ghibli’s penultimate work, I feel somewhat compelled to jump on the all-hail-Miyazaki bandwagon, but then again, I’d rather not.
I feel that it’s only right to start off this review by being truthful about my experience with Ghibli works, just so that if you disagree entirely with what I’m saying, then you’d best base your impressions of Kaguya on another source. In all honesty, I love Ghibli for its music and art, I like it for its animation, and I don’t really care for its stories. In fact, I believe that the plots of Ghibli movies exist solely to support the art and animation itself, and never the other way round. “Sullen Girl Grows up by Getting a Job” sounds less like Spirited Away, than “Adventure in the Spiritual Bath House,” as is the case of “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea” and “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and don’t get me started on The Cat Returns. I mean, what even happened in that last one? I just remember a lot of cats.
Anyway, Princess Kaguya’s plot is as sweet and simple as its predecessors. Mukashi mukashi (once upon a time), an old bamboo cutter discovered a tiny princess in the trunk of a bamboo tree. He took the sleeping girl home to his wife, and they watched in amazement as she transformed into a baby. Having no children of their own, the couple decided to raise her, and soon the fast-growing little girl was slipping and tumbling about the mountainsides with the other children. Upon returning to the princess’ bamboo tree, the bamboo cutter found gold and fine silk spilling out of the trunk, whereupon he had an epiphany – the deities must have desired him to raise the girl in finery and riches! So he built her a fine palace and brought her to the capital, where she would now learn the ways of the royalty, and live a happy, fulfilling life.
After the first twenty minutes, the story doesn’t get any happier. To be fair, it’s based on an Asian folktale that ends in tragedy (as do all Asian folktales, trust me on this one) – but I’m not going to pretend that I left the cinema feeling all warm and uplifted. This is one of those shows which teaches a lesson through traumatising you into enlightenment – so folks, appreciate what you have around you, find joy in the simple things, don’t be greedy and materialistic, if not…you’ll end up like Princess Kaguya! It’s similar to what Grave of the Fireflies did, albeit nowhere near extreme, but there’s no denying that had the designs and colours not been bright and pretty, this movie would have made me horribly depressed. Oh, and if it ever looks like things are going to turn around, beware, because this movie pulls TWO trolls on the audience, for no other reason than to flaunt its art and animation.
Which are, of course, absolutely superb. In crafting Princess Kaguya, director Isao Takahata opted for a minimalist style that mirrors the simplicity of a children’s picture book – but it doesn’t make the result any less rich. Instead, the tenderness of the artist is displayed in the minutest details – every stroke that makes up the trees, flowers and birds is applied with care and deliberation. The nature scenes are overflowing with life and joy, permeated by an unfettered sense of freedom. In contrast, as the story transitions to the palace, the colours on each silk robe and priceless treasure are sharper and stronger, reinforcing the exuberance and wealth of the nobility culture. There’s also a dramatic scene where everything becomes black and grey charcoal scrawls in an explosion of unbridled wrath, but like I said, the context behind it is…misleading.
The animation is precise, but not quite standard Ghibli fare, because it’s not entirely fluid. That’s perfectly fine as it’s keeping in line with the visual tone of the entire movie. As I mentioned, the whole thing reads like a picture book from start to finish, so the transitions between the frames almost feels like one is flipping the pages. It may start out rather jarring for those who prefer something more smooth and polished, but don’t worry, the style grows on you, and by the end you’ll probably find it rather charming.
As for the soundtrack, whether or not you appreciate it really depends on how much you can appreciate traditional Japanese music. Joe Hisaishi is one of the best composers out there – unlike Yoko Kanno, whose iconic indie tunes end up being supported by the scene they’re in, Hisaishi deliberately composes for the material he’s given. And given that Princess Kaguya is set within a Japanese fairy tale, there’s really nothing more appropriate than what we get. The theme song plays like a typical Japanese folksong – slow, drawn-out, eerily haunting (they all are); but there are also enthralling orchestral pieces whenever Kaguya is running through the grandiose mountains and lakes. Also, I watched the movie subbed, and I liked the Japanese voices, although if you really want to focus on the visuals then I don’t think that what I hear of the English dub is lacklustre.
Princess Kaguya is a very “Asian” show, in the sense that it’s clearly made for a Japanese audience who knows the cultural backdrop of the story. To begin with, if you didn’t know that the story is based off the The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, then there won’t be the same kind of thrill that you get in watching a Disney adaptation, and thinking things like, let’s see how many of the Greek gods I can recognise in Hercules! Practices like blackening one’s teeth sounds heathenish and barbaric, but to the Asian culture, it was traditionally considered beautiful, though no Asian person today can explain why. And yes, in the past children didn’t get names until they came of age, get over it. The biggest drawback for a Western audience might lie in the fact that there’s a sudden point in the story where the moon becomes important for no rhyme or reason, and when I was sitting as an audience in the cinema at Bristol’s Watershed, I could sense the confusion and disbelief sweeping the viewers – like “what, that was random.” But no, not really, we Asians love the moon to bits; the Chinese believe there’s a beautiful princess called Chang’e who lives there with her pet rabbit. So there are some things that have to be viewed in context, if not it’s all going to seem rather odd.
Ulltimately, I’m still not absolutely sure what to think of Princess Kaguya. As I said at the start, Ghibli works don’t really have plots…well, not the kind people debate extensively about, anyways. Interestingly enough, though, I will say that the titular character, Kaguya, is unusually well-fleshed out. That’s mostly because the entire story is about her birth and growth, and all the frustrations and complexities that come with being torn between desires and duties. As long as you’re taken in with her precocious, intelligent nature, this will be a memorable movie – if not a terribly depressing one. I know I just had to say it again, but those are my sentiments.
I don’t dislike sad shows; in fact, I enjoy them when they explore things that no other work has done before, or teach a lesson so powerful that it makes the whole thing end on a hopeful note (read: Eva; again). Unfortunately for Princess Kaguya, I’m not quite sure it does either of those things. It’s an inexorably intricate, beautiful show – one of those visual feasts you will never forget. Would I watch it again? No way, it was far too painful the first time. But am I still thinking about it now, more than one week after I saw it? I can’t help but think about it every now and then, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. All Ghibli movies are like that. They linger in your mind and capture your thoughts when you least expect it. Princess Kaguya continues to work that same Ghibli magic, and deserves nothing less than an 8/10 for it.