Review: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya


Some weeks back I wrote about the apathy that exists among Oscar voters  towards animated films. Happy to report that I had the pleasure to watch one of the “two obscure Chinese things,” namely Isao Takahata’s film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. It might be somewhat premature to say so, but I do believe that Kaguya is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. It is a film, like other works by Studio Ghibli, that embodies a perfect balance between engaging story and stellar animation – fully embracing the medium.

kaguya_1.0Based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the story centers on a young girl who is born from a stalk of bamboo. A man finds her and brings her home to his wife. Both raise her as their own daughter. They also hold firm to the belief that she is not just a Princess, but a gift from God. Once the young princess has grown from baby to teenager (far more quickly than normal – even getting older at a moment’s notice), she is whisked away to the capital. Here she starts off happily enough, enjoying all the splendor of the royal life and her new home. As time passes, however, she struggles to find happiness amid the many suitors who ask for her hand in marriage, as well as the longing to reunite with her childhood friends back in the country.

The film is a technical marvel, with an artistic style far different from anything that I have seen come out of Studio Ghibli. This review of the film discusses the animation process, which was done by hand and took an astonishing eight years to complete. The film’s appearance was shocking at first, but eventually I found myself falling in love with it. Apparently Takahata modeled the look of the film after traditional Japanese art, which is fitting for a film based off of a 10th century Japanese folktale.

The story was powerful as well. Elliot Poh notes that “…the first act was but a ruse. This is not a standard Ghibli film, and no amount of comical antics by stock characters will change that. For the rest of the film, the audience is entreated to the slow but sure degradation of a young woman’s spirit.” I do not know if Takahata meant to concoct this “ruse,” but it would certainly make sense.  The tone of the film definitely changes throughout, and upon reflection I do find myself agreeing with Poh’s assessment wher the  film begins with a very Ghibli-esque, fairytale tone. Poh is right, however, in that the tone changes once Kaguya leaves her rural life, and childhood, behind. Though I personally feel that the most shocking tonal change begins with the appearance of the suitors and ends in a heartbreaking conclusion. Poh suggests that Kaguya’s darker tone is responding to Ghibli’s works, and their typically more lighthearted endings: “It proffers no happy ending,” says Poh, “There is no hero or villain, only life and death.”

The only issue was that I wish that the Princess displayed a little more sorrow after initially leaving her friends. Granted she was enthralled with the mansion at the time, as most young teens would be, but I believe it should have been hinted at. It was also frustrating to see her watch as her childhood friend was being beaten for stealing, as I kept waiting for her to intervene. Again, it is hard to fault a teenager when they are so clearly in over their head. On the other hand I believe if she told them to stop beating boy they would have, but maybe it would have been culturally out of line for a Princess to intervene. Perhaps Takahata felt that it fit the Princess’ mindset at the time, where she was still just in shock over seeing her friend after so long. It’s difficult to tell without further analysis.

That minor gripe aside, I truly adored this movie. Like so many other Japanese animated films when compared to their American counterparts, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is more mature yet maintains a certain degree of fairytale magic and beauty. It further adds to the argument that animation should be considered a true art form rather than a medium merely meant for kids. I highly recommend this movie. As I said before I will try to watch Song of the Sea soon and, hopefully, post a review of it for you.

Score: 4.75/5

Sources Consulted

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Isao Takahata’s imdb profile:

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” imdb page:

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Dir. Isao Takahata. 2014. Studio Ghibli/G-Kids, 2014. Blu-Ray/DVD.

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