Cast: (voiced by) Chloë Grace Moretz, Darren Criss, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Lucy Liu, Hynden Walch, George Segal, James Marsden, Oliver Platt, Daniel Dae Kim, Dean Cain, Beau Bridges*
Director: Isao Takahata
Writers: Isao Takahata, Riko Sakaguchi
I must confess that when I went to see this film, I wasn’t all that sure whether I would actually enjoy it. Even though the film was released by Studio Ghibli, a studio that often and consistently releases good films, I initially thought that I was going to find the animation style off-putting. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya employs its own distinctive animation style consisting of simple sketches set against a watercolour background, a style that I thought might not be able to fully illustrate the incredible imagination and creativity that goes into these films. Thankfully my concerns were alleviated by the beauty and elegance of the animation and I did not find the style to be at all a hindrance when watching this film; although at the same time I didn’t think the animation was utilised to its fullest potential, a point I will explore in greater depth later.
The story, based on the Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, starts off with the discovery of a small woman within a glowing bamboo shoot by the local bamboo cutter. The small woman is of royal birth and emanates a divine aura. After she transforms into a baby, the bamboo cutter and his wife figure that the woman is the figure that she will grow up to become and so they decide to raise her. While the mother wants nothing more than for the child to grow up happy, the father bestows upon her the title of ‘Princess’ and believes that she should be treated as such. The girl grows at an accelerated rate and lives a simple and modest life with her parents; a life that the father feels is unworthy of her. When the bamboo cutter comes across a vast collection of gold and fine cloth in the same spot where he found their daughter, he takes it as a divine sign that she must be brought up as a princess and sets out to build a palace for her where she will want for nothing.
Despite being bestowed with a large palace, the finest clothes and everything that a princess could ever want, Kaguya finds herself unsuited to a life of nobility. Even though she shows a clear gift for all of the practices that is expected of a princess, she resents the endless rules and restrictions that she is expected to live by and longs for the days of her early childhood when she was free and happy. As word of her beauty, grace and charm spread throughout the land, an army of would-be suitors arrive to try and win her heart. When five of the noblest and wealthiest suitors in all the land come and ask for her hand, Kaguya is expected to choose one of them to be her husband despite not knowing or loving any of them. As her life becomes more insufferable and overbearing, Kaguya is then suddenly presented with a revelation that reveals her true destiny.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a very slow film which is fine for the most part because the story and characters are compelling enough to be engaging. The beginning and the ending of this film are both done very well. Where the film struggles and drags the most is in the middle. The whole idea of the princess who is dissatisfied with her life and longs to be free is hardly new (how many Disney films have we seen that tell that same story?) and so the amount of time that the film dedicates to that aspect of the story proves trying. This is where the animation style starts to lose me. As the story dragged along, the stillness and plainness of the animation did little to captivate my interest. When I watched The Wind Rises, another Studio Ghibli film with a slow story, I never lost my interest for a second, not even in the parts where there wasn’t much happening. This is because the exquisite animation of The Wind Rises was able to create a mesmerising atmosphere that had me thoroughly absorbed. In The Tale of the Princess Kaguya there is much beauty to be found in the graceful simplicity of the animation, but not much atmosphere.
There is one scene I recall which for me is undoubtedly the strongest scene in the film. It takes place at a point when the pressures of the noble life prove too much for Kaguya. She finds herself in a repressive and overbearing state and longs to break free. When she overhears a conversation and has her feelings hurt, she finally snaps. She makes a run for it, breaking down the palace doors and discarding her expensive robes as she does. She runs away from her home, away from all the pomp, the oppression and the misery, and runs aimlessly into the woods as she seeks to finally have a moment to herself free from the rules and the repression, a moment to cry and to express her despair. It is only a minute long but is highly effective, in large part due to the animation. As Kaguya runs away from the palace the animation becomes sketchier and more distorted, reflecting the turmoil and anguish in her heart. It is a moment that transcends the animated style of this film as the entire world is reshaped in order to reflect her feelings. This is a technique that could have transformed The Tale of the Princess Kaguya into a much more effective film, had it been more fully realised. Unfortunately this scene is the only one in the entire film to utilise that style. The rest of the animation, while pleasant, seems almost lifeless in comparison.
With that in mind I still enjoyed the film a great deal. Even though the animation failed to grasp me, it was still an elegant and charming style that was pleasant to look at. Even though the story dragged in the middle, it still had me invested. I liked the central character a lot and I was interested in watching her journey and in seeing what would happen to her. I enjoyed watching her grow up and seeing how her arrival affected those around her and the bond that she formed with her adoptive parents, and I also enjoyed watching her struggle to accept her destiny. The ending of the film incorporates the supernatural fantasy elements to create a dream-like state that works very well. It is an ending that is rich in imagination and tone that builds up to a bittersweet pay-off. It is an overall pleasant and emotional film, and its only real flaw is its unrealised potential.
* [I should probably note that the version of the film that I saw was subtitled and not dubbed, therefore I cannot account for the voice-acting in the English dub. However Studio Ghibli films do tend to be well-dubbed so I’m sure it’s fine.]