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Cannes 2014: ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’ a beautiful but floundering anti-fairy-tale

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Written by Isao Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi

Directed by Isao Takahata

Japan, 2014

Taking many of its features from Studio Ghibli mainstays, Isao Takahata’s latest film The Tale of Princess Kaguya tackles an age-old folktale from Japan, bringing the studio’s warmth and childhood imagination to a mythic scale. It’s based upon The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, with a visual style imitating children’s storybooks or perhaps the scroll of the tale itself. It’s an act of wonderment to be in the presence of fluid, beautiful hand-drawn animation in a time clamoring for more and more computers at play, but the nostalgic value only barely supersedes its rough-and-tumble approach to adapting the anti-fairy-tale to the big screen.

The tale begins within nature, as a humble bamboo cutter going about his work discovers a radiant stalk amongst his field. Inside, he finds a fairy-sized princess, a gift from heaven, that transforms into a newborn as he transports it home. As the bamboo rewards him with riches and clothes, he believes that heaven is telling him to give the little girl, growing at an exponential rate, the life of royalty. They travel to the capital where Princess Kaguya must separate her previous “hillbilly” life of nature with her newfound royal status and all the pretensions that come with it. Her easy mastery of everything she tries combined with her humility and natural beauty leads to rumors across the land about her mysterious perfection, granting her the richest yet most superficial suitors. The pain they cause her reveals her magical origin from spiritual moon people to whom she must return.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya - Isao Takahata

The most immediate sensations throughout the movie are dictated by the minimalistic style of animation fully relying upon chalk, watercolors, and light pencil work. It doesn’t often flaunt itself, but, like picture books, help to give a visual starting point to the viewer’s imagination. This isn’t to say that the animation itself lacks imagination — there are several moments where a simple shift in color palettes or an imitation of camera pans and tracking shots help reveal emotion and depth to the world past mere storybook ambitions. Takahata’s animators are also well-versed in what Roger Ebert lovingly referred to as “pillow shots”: brief moments to take in the natural environment, meditate on a subtle human expression, or even include a POV shot from a deer. From these, we may gauge the tone of the story: warm and inviting despite the tensions within Kaguya’s choices and changes.

Its lovely visual atmosphere and analog score (thanks to Joe Hisaishi’s string-laden orchestral movements) serve it best in its sporadic scenes of childhood adjustment, but the overarching narrative, driven from a type of storytelling centuries old, appears a bit lacking. Kaguya’s mystical qualities, being vaulted from the heavens in the beginning and riding back to the moon upon a sort of Buddhist-Elijah cloud display, are placed in the background or merely hinted throughout the majority of the story. It separates the tale into a confusing mix of both fish-out-of-water and humble royalty stories, only sometimes coming together for anecdotal effect. There’s a nice connection between Princess Kaguya leaving the pastoral landscape for an unwarranted position in the capital and her leaving the earth for the moon in that they both attempt to capture the nature of “home” and the wearisome process of finding what she may really want. But these are never fully explored to a satisfactory degree: not a problem for the original poem, but lacking for a 137-minute feature.

Because of its questionable structure, the pure emotional value of the film can flounder, finding itself between mythological world-building and genuine melodrama, but never rightly infusing the two or pushing one to a lively extent. Despite the weakened force, it has a surprisingly progressive approach to gender politics, forming Kaguya’s aspirations in the polar opposite direction of most Western fairy-tales as she rejects her princess status and the wealth of suitors who claim her as their “treasure”. Combined with the inviting tone and entrancing illustrations, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is unmistakably Ghibli and will happily appeal to that audience regardless of adaptation-wrought meandering.

 – Zach Lewis


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