The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya – Isao Takahata – 2013

Kaguyahime No Monogatari CoverOriginal title: Kaguyahime No Monogatari
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)
Year: 2013
Director: Isao Takahata
Duration: 137 min.
Genres: Animation, Drama, Fantasy

Princess Kaguya

I had been looking forward to this one for over a year now. After being released in Japan somewhere in 2013 it has been getting only very positive reactions, but it took until late 2014 to be released for the foreign audiences. 2013 is likely to mark the end of an era in Japanese animation. With the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, the two founders of Studio Ghibli, animation worldwide lost its two best directors. Miyazaki’s last hurrah The Wind Rises was a good film, but Takahata’s Tale of Princess Kaguya is from a whole other league. I would even go as far as to put it right up there with some of the absolute best of animated films, such as The Lion King, Toy Story, Princess Mononoke or Grave of the Fireflies. Spirited away remains in a league of its own.

Princess Kaguya

Where most animated films these days seem to focus more and more on realism, tiny details and 3D, Princess Kaguya is all about 2D, hand drawn, unrealistic and unsharp visuals. I would not be surprised if future animation films borrow from what was done here. Not only because it looks gorgeous, but also because it is a lot cheaper to produce. This film also shows that it is not about slick graphics or cool special effects. It is the story, and the characters in it, that count. With a 137 minute running time it is the longest Ghibli film to date. The only critique may be that a few scenes are a bit too long, but that would be nit picking. To make up for it though, the blurry chaotic scene – header image – when Kaguya runs away has to be the most beautiful and intense scene I have ever seen in an animated film.

So about the story then. The tale of moon princess Kaguya is actually the oldest surviving tale in Japanese history, also known as the tale of the bamboo cutter. It starts with a man cutting down bamboo trees. He sees a light shine down on the earth, and upon inspection sees it shines on a small bamboo stalk. But out of nowhere the stalk starts to grow at an incredible rate. It then sort of opens up like a flower, revealing a tiny little princess about the size of a finger. The bamboo cutter figures he has been blessed by the gods and takes the princess home to his wife. When she touches her, the princess turns into a baby. The couple interpret this as a sign that they are to take care of her, and that the princess they saw must be what she is supposed to become.

The princess grows up at an incredible rate, until she is about 16 years old. I think in real time that took about half a year or a year. Then one day the bamboo cutter sees another light shine in the woods. After cutting down the tree, a large pile of gold falls out. A short while later a second tree spits out lots of cloth. The kind that kimono’s and dresses are made of. This must mean that the gods intend for them to use the gold to buy a large house in the capital city, and to finally dress and raise her as a real princess. Of course that comes with all the Japanese rituals and customs one might expect. A lot of training is required on how to move around gracefully. A woman should look a certain way, learn to play an instrument and so on. Eventually she must marry young and have babies.

During one of the customary ceremonies, a name is chosen for the princess. An influential noble chooses Kaguya as her name. Soon after, word spreads of Kaguya’s beauty, even though her father tries to keep her away from the outside world. Then one day, five of the wealthiest, most powerful men in Japan arrive, asking for her hand in marriage. Each of the men is allowed to propose, but in doing so they all compare her beauty to some mythical object. Kaguya decides that whoever can bring her the object they compared her to, shall be allowed to marry her.

Princess Kaguya

Up to this point, the story unfolds as your average fairy tale. But don’t be fooled by this. There is much more to this film than that, but, truth be told, it takes a while to get going. All I can say is, do not pass an opportunity to see The Tale of Princess Kaguya. The visual beauty of the animation is matched by the intensity of the story. The main story and all the additional plot makes it very suitable for adults and children alike. Oh and finally – this should go without saying really – watch this film in its original language, with subtitles in English or your language of choice.

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