The Tale of Princess Kaguya came out at an interesting time in the world of animation films, as 2014 was a standout year for the medium with an overwhelming amount of masterfully crafted movies versus lowest common detonator trash. However, it was immediately smacked with controversy as the 87th Academy Awards erroneously left off The Lego Movie in the list of the “Best Animated Feature” category. (Which for my money, is also the best movie that year, not just animated-wise.) With the exception of How To Train Your Dragon 2, all the other nominees were met with flack, especially as Song of the Sea and Princess Kaguya were labeled as those movies of “No one saw these, why are they getting nominations?”
Although Hayao Miyazaki is getting some much needed recognition by the Academy this year with an Honorary Award, there’s never been enough praise given to Studio Ghibli’s other heavy hitter and Kaguya’s director: Isao Takahata. Takahata’s career has a surprising range of diversity from the overwhelming narrative of Grave of the Fireflies and more down-to-earth, comedic tones found in Pom Poko and My Neighbors The Yamadas. His preference of realistic scenarios over fantasy makes for a beautiful contrast when established with the grand morals of a folktale. And as much as I love Miyazaki, his themes are quite obvious, as anime-centric comedian Uncle Yo summarized: “Eventually, A Girl Will Fly.”
So how did this movie fair amongst a year of other animation giants that broke barriers in not just visualization, but also storytelling? You’ll be quite interested to know how things play out.
Director: Isao Takahata
Composition: Yasuko Kobayashi
Original Concept: Isao Takahata, based on 10th-Century Japanese Folktale: “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”
Character Design: Kenichi Konishi
Art Director: Kazuo Oga
Animation Production: Studio Ghibli
Synopsis: Found inside a shining stalk of bamboo by an old bamboo cutter and his wife, a tiny girl grows rapidly into an exquisite young lady, seemingly blessed by the gods for a life of prestige and celebration. The mysterious young princess enthralls all who encounter her from political suitors to the Emperor of Japan. Yet as her life becomes more regal, she finds conflict in the hollow meaning of entitlement and ultimately must confront her fate based on her mysterious origins.
Princess Kaguya exudes old world style the second you turn it on. The decision to go with a bristly, sketchbook appearance to match the setting of the 10th century is incredibly engaging and gives the story a very immersive feel. You don’t question the fact you are watching an adaption because it matches the look of Japanese pictoral scrolls and ukiyo-e perfectly. Just as you begin to settle in the look of the film; it will transition to new scenes featuring rain, public transportation, or architecture that exquisitely melds with the story.
While the film openly relies on simple storytelling, much of the movie has a Slice of Life feel, as we spend the first 40 minutes watching the development of “the princess” in her humble, country life. You immediately come to love The Bamboo Cutter and his wife as they organically transition from being a hardworking couple to happy parents, taking the magical realism moments of this little blessing in stride. Even the rowdy boys are unphased by the sudden growth of the young girl, quickly adopting her into their little gang as they explore the surprisingly diverse nature. It makes for an incredibly pleasant watch and is arguably the best part of the movie, but the tone really begins to shift as the Bamboo Cutter finds money and decides to move to the capital.
Isao Takahata’s biggest mistake with the film comes around the halfway point when you realize that he’s taking a straightforward fairy tale and expanding it to 2 hours and 15 minutes. I generally don’t have this issue in other Ghibli tales as there’s so much world development or character buildup to make everything feel necessary. But that’s what is lacking in Princess Kaguya, is that they spend so much time fussing about the importance of being ladylike and dealing with royal bureaucracy that it weighs the movie down.
Sadly, this is defined in a scene halfway through the movie between the recently named Princess Kaguya and her tutor Lady Sagami. The two of them have a quick debate over the importance of being a proper bride, questioning the objectification of the matter. Yet the conversation ends with Kaguya making a huffy remark that summarizes the message of that arc and the entire movie itself. An overstated conversation that points out the entire thematic structure of your movie really harms the narrative because I could predict where it was going and it made all the time spent at the temple frustrating.
This plays out to a fascinating, but morally questionable, tearjerking ending where we learn more about Kaguya’s origin. It works as a natural progression as every stage of her life has become more grand and dramatic, but it made me feel a tad uneasy as it played out. We understand the message about the folly of man loosing connection with the world by becoming so obsessed with greed and entitlement, but I don’t know if the outside perspective understood that either. As I finished the film, I immediately looked up how the original folktale was written. I believe I would have preferred a more true adaptation of the story, as it gives a more even-handed approach to humanity’s curiosity and a more definitive ending.
What kept my attention throughout the viewing was the stellar voice acting. I saw the English dub, which gave a simple, but authentic telling of the rustic story with many of our characters growing throughout the way. The two who stood out were James Caan and Mary Steemburgen as the Bamboo Cutter and his wife, who feel all too realistic. As you start to love them humble beginnings, you become generally concerned as the two become entrapped by the nature of royalty. Chloe Grace Moretz works delightfully well as the titular character, and I love the touches of having character actors voice many of the one off male characters or Hynden Walch voicing Kaguya’s adorable assistant.
The film succeeds consistently throughout the running time, partially supported by many well-executed dream sequences. Kazuo Oga’s art style can be beautifully still as the characters do humdrum activities, while other scenes can be exhilarating as the charcoal sketches illustrate the rocky nature of Japan’s classism. There’s absolutely no question that the animation matches every moment beat for beat when it comes to mood or tone. I just don’t know how much I can recommend it because it’s such an overwrought, basic story.
Is The Tale of Princess Kaguya worthy of it’s Oscar nomination? Absolutely. If you were to ask me the only film danger of true backlash is if The Boxtrolls were to win the award this year. But should it win? Not really. Maybe the Academy was so thrilled with the art and it already knew about Ghibli’s reputation that the movie earned an award immediately. This is an enjoyable movie, but it’s length and obvious character development doesn’t earn the film much merit. I would definitely recommend this movie as something to have on in the background that you watch in bursts because it’s amazing for only so long.
My Rating: 6.5 out of 10.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is to be released by Studio Ghibli/Universal Pictures/GKIDS on February 17th, 2015.