Cinematic Releases: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya is in limited release right now. 

"Dang! That girl be so small,
she fit in mah hand, yo."
With rumors swirling recently of Studio Ghibli shutting its doors to making new animation, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was thought to perhaps be one of the last films being produced. However, the future of the studio seems to be a bit brighter, so fans should keep their hopes up. If the rumors had been true, Princess Kaguya would have been a fitting and beautiful swan song for Studio Ghibli—it ranks up there with the best that they have made in their illustrious history.

Directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko), this film is a Japanese folktale brought to life. It is based on the story, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, which concerns a poor peasant who discovers an enchanted baby inside of a glowing bamboo shoot. The film has an intriguing dichotomy between the fantastic and the mundane, with equal attention given to both. While the characters are portrayed realistically for the most part, the story takes jaunts into magical realism every so often, with gorgeous dream sequences and flights of fancy. It never veers so far as to lose its humanity or emotional impact though.

The look of Princess Kaguya is meant to emulate the delicate style of Ukiyo-e which is roughly translated to “pictures of the floating world”. Ukiyo-e is an old Japanese painting style characterized by elegant calligraphy brushstrokes and a muted watercolor palette. The animation is graceful and is often surrounded by off-white negative space—it seems to unfurl like a long painted scroll. Everything is hand-drawn as well, which makes it seem more organic and fluid—a whirlwind of wispy black lines and twirling colors. There is a scene when the art style deconstructs and becomes nothing more than frantic charcoal marks and splatters of paint—just an idea or a feeling imprinted onto the cells. It ranks up there as one of the most beautiful animated sequences I have ever seen. The entire film is eye-candy but it never at any point becomes overwhelming.

Princess Kaguya is an interesting character with complex emotions and motivations. She is trapped in a world that she does not want and has to struggle to keep her individuality. The role of woman in Japanese society has often been typecast as submissive and docile, and this movie uses that concept to tell a compelling story of self-discovery and longing. I found myself feeling so much sadness and solidarity towards Kaguya—it’s not an uncommon feeling to find oneself feeling “trapped” within their station in life. On the surface of this story, these themes might not be readily apparent, but if you read between the lines it becomes clearer. It’s a tragic story, but sorrow is the dominion of many fairy-tales.

"Putting this flower in your hair will keep
evil American animation away from you!!!"
Joe Hisaishi, a Ghibli alumni, provides the haunting and lovely traditional style score. He makes good use of sweeping orchestral movements and poignant piano pieces overlaid with gorgeous koto playing. It’s modern sounding but simultaneously evokes a feeling of tradition and legend. Hisashi has scored many other Ghibli films and each one sounds distinctive and original. Because the animation style can be abstract occasionally, the music has much more impact in a film like this, often carrying the mood when the visuals aren’t as easy to make out. Overall, it’s an incredible score and is one of Hisaishi’s most inspired efforts.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a movie for all ages, and it succeeds by not just pandering to children. It contemplates serious concepts and themes and by doing so, it does have some darker moments. These are a part of life, however, and it would be a disservice to water it down in any way. The best films are able to speak to a larger audience and let them see the world in a new light, if even just for a few hours. This film is a portal into a mystic realm that everyone should experience at least once.

-Michelle Kisner