“The Tale of Princess Kaguya”
A Famed Director:
This post has been in the pipeline for almost a year now, suffering delay after delay – until now.
Takahata Isao delivers what presumes to be his final Ghibli film, and if that is the case, then what a send-off it was. Grave of the Fireflies is certainly his most famous work to date – and that’s for good reason; it’s brutal, unforgiving, and heart wrenching. The other film of his that I’ve seen is the criminally under appreciated Only Yesterday, which, by enjoyment alone, would be my favourite Ghibli movie, thanks to what I would consider to be the best final sequence in cinematic history. Having immensely enjoyed two of his works already, I was expecting much the same the third time around, and that’s exactly what I got. Kaguya-hime was, in a word, beautiful – visually, conceptually, and in its delivery.
A Famous Story:
I was already familiar with some of the details of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter – the Japanese folktale on which this is based – so I had a rough idea on what was being set up early on. Thankfully, I didn’t what know was going to happen throughout most of the film, and so was left both satisfied and surprised by the developments surrounding Kaguya, her journey, and where she came from. Looking back at some key scenes earlier on, the imagery was certainly there for the reveal in the end, which I appreciate. As a whole, the story was a simple one: a girl from the countryside is destined for riches, and so is sent off to a world of wonder to prepare for her new life. There’s the classic rebellious behaviour, a strict teacher, and suitors at the sidelines all fighting for the affection of the most beautiful girl in the capital, worthy of the name Kaguya.
As one would expect, Kaguya (Asakura Aki) was the standout character of the film. She was believable in her actions, her feelings, and her compromises. Whilst the foundation for the story has been done time and time again, Kaguya’s character brought it to that higher level. It’s interesting to me that the two best moments of the film are both of her running – the first is when she arrives at the mansion with her new robe, racing through the corridors, bumping into folk doing their work, before dashing off again, laughing as she goes. It was a moment of pure bliss that sent a rush right through me, as if Kaguya’s joy was tangible. The second – and I imagine the most memorable scene for many – is her escape from her banquet. The shift in art was so sudden, and so incredibly effective – my heart was pumping as she smashed through the walls, flung off her rainbow robes and ran into the moonlight, into the snow, all the way back to her home. It was invigorating to watch, and for as stunning as it looked, both those scenes were made that much more special thanks to the Joe Hisaishi, who returned to do the soundtrack for Kaguya-hime, and did a marvellous job.
Animation as Art:
It’s important to highlight just how stunning the artwork is in this one. I don’t think I’ve ever quite seen any animated piece like this – to this degree, or length, at least. Whilst I can see why it might be off-putting in the first few minutes, trust me, you’ll be grateful for it as it goes on. I found myself baffled at how well-crafted and rough it managed to be at the same time. I liked it when the lines were slightly off, when it became scratchy and the palette got the occasional burst of colour (like from Kaguya’s robes). Another effective element is the atmospheres in the countryside and the capital; both in their visuals, as well as how they were used in the story. When Kaguya returns (in what I assume was some sort of dream) the colours are dulled, reflecting how times have changed, her friends have moved on, and that spring was no longer in full bloom. Compare that to the end, more than three years later, when Kaguya and Sutemaru (Koura Kengo) re-unite in the field, when the palette is brimming with vibrancy and everything seems perfect, if just for a moment.
One theme that resonated with me the most whilst watching was being in charge of one’s own life. We see it with the Bamboo Cutter (Chii Takeo) who finds Kaguya, idolises her as a princess, and is dedicated to make her one. He tries to do everything he can to give his new daughter the life he thinks she deserves, but never stops to ask her what it is she actually wants. Ona (Miyamoto Nobuka) and Kaguya have a closer relationship when it comes to understanding, with their back garden modelled like their old village, and the tender moments they share together where both try to escape from the hectic palace life. Kaguya doesn’t seem to have any big plans for her future, but after being led around for too long, her inner wish is granted when she has to return from where she came. It was a moment that was emotional, tragic, but oddly relieving as well, to see her be set free and not have to life her life in a cage, unable to do what she pleases.
Overview – Final Impressions:
If I were to summarise Kaguya-hime, I would say that it’s very rare to see so much time, effort, and passion came across on the screen as it does here. I felt every second of this film, even if it did drag in the middle and could have been tighter overall. But in a way I’m glad it wasn’t. I’m glad it lingered and had everything play out the way it did. It has to be said that Kaguya-hime was brilliant, beautiful, and a story I’m glad was told, especially as one of Studio Ghibli’s last films.
Guardian Enzo’s Impressions:
The following were my thoughts upon seeing Kaguyahime in the theatre soon after it was released. Samu-kun has kindly asked me to share them in this post.
– Guardian Enzo
It’s always a thrill to be in the presence of true genius.
Takahata Isao, the 78 year-old “other” of Studio Ghibli’s two old lions, is never going to be as well known as his good friend Miyazaki Hayao. His movies are never going to sell as many tickets in Japan, and may never even see a theatrical release in the West. If indeed Kaguya-hime no Monogatari is his last film, as seems very likely, he’s rarely if ever going to be mentioned when the conversation turns to the greatest animation directors of our time. But he should be, and Kaguya-hime is a wonderful way to put the exclamation point on the argument his small but superb catalogue makes to that effect.
I can say this much – this is a beautiful, powerful film that moved me very deeply. It’s always an interesting status check for me when I see an anime film in raw form, and indeed I did find that – much to my satisfaction – I’m understanding more of the dialogue now than ever before (though a pause button would surely come in handy). But this is such a timeless and elemental story that the feelings largely transcend linguistic barriers, and I suspect even a viewer with no Japanese skills would have understood the gist of the story.
Takahata hasn’t made many films – this is only his fifth as a Director for Ghibli in 27 years – but the ones he’s made have counted. I still consider Grave of the Fireflies one of the saddest and most profound films in any language or medium (Roger Ebert called it the greatest anti-war film ever made) and I have a special soft spot for My Neighbors the Yamadas (which was a rare commercial failure for Ghibli). Takahata’s style both in terms of visuals and storytelling is as different from Miyazaki’s as night and day, though they’ve worked together on many film and TV projects – Takahata is a much more spare and elegant filmmaker, and if you’ve seen the previews for Kaguya-hime you know that it’s pretty much an impressionistic work, choosing shading and contrast over detail and a rainbow of colors. But don’t let that fool you – the detail is wonderful and the animation top cailber, and this is one of the most striking and beautiful anime in many years.
Some of you may be familiar with “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, the 10th-Century Japanese folk tale on which this movie is based (every Japanese person old enough to read certainly is). I certainly knew going in that this was going to be an emotional story, but I confess I was a bit put off by the woman sitting next to be who was, no exaggeration, quite audibly crying for about 110 of the 137-minute running time. But for the last 15 minutes of the film, I was wrecked – this makes twice now Takahata has completely reduced me to helpless tears, though the themes could hardly be more different. I hate to keep harping on mono no aware but it’s so deeply entrenched in the Japanese storytelling tradition, and it imbues every pore of the “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. And Takahata does a magnificent job capturing the emotion of the story on film with his understated, direct style – this feelings at work here are incredibly elemental and universal. There’s no simpler or more powerful story than that of the joy opening your heart to love can bring, and the pain which accompanies the inevitable parting that comes with every loving relationship in the end.
For my money Kaguya-hime no Monogatari is certainly the best anime film of 2013, which of course also means it’s the best Ghibli film of the year. That’s not a knock on Kaze no Tachinu, but a reflection of how beautiful and profound this movie is. My strong emotional reaction to the films closing moments was no doubt enhanced by the sense that it very much represents the end of an era – Miyazaki has announced that Kaze no Tachinu was his final film, and Takahata-sensei is 78 years old. If indeed these are the capstones to their careers I think they’re good ones – but more than that, anime fans and lovers of great cinema should feel very grateful to have lived in a time when two such geniuses were sharing their vision. Other visionaries are already making their mark on the anime world, but Takahata and Miyazaki are unique and irreplaceable figures, and we’re not likely to see their like again.