Mark Reviews Movies

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Isao Takahata

Cast: The voices of Aki Asakura, Takeo Chii, Nobuko Miyamoto, Kengo Kôra, Atsuko Takahata, Tomoko Tabata

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some violent action and partial nudity)

Running Time: 2:17

Release Date: 10/17/14 (limited); 12/5/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 4, 2014

The story of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya begins as all such stories do: "Once upon a time." In this one, there is a bamboo cutter in a grove on a mountain. The man is working his trade when he spots an illuminated stalk of the plant he cuts for a living. A shoot of bamboo sprouts from the ground in front of the glowing stalk, and it blooms to reveal a tiny girl who fits comfortably inside the palm of the man's hand. She rolls over in his hand and exhales. He gasps, fearing the worst, only to quickly notice that the little child, who is no bigger than his index finger, has simply adjusted herself to sleep securely in the careful and caring touch of her new keeper.

There are a few things left unspoken in the opening scene of co-writer/director Isao Takahata's tender and beautifully animated film. The first, of course, is the moment of fear. Okina (voice of Takeo Chii), the bamboo cutter, never voices the thought, but it's apparent that he momentarily thinks this tiny creature has died. Worse, he believes he is responsible for the death of this miniature girl, whom Okina's wife Ouna (voice of Nobuko Miyamoto) mistakes for a doll when she first sees her.

The other important fact, which is neither addressed nor even implied in the moment, is one that is even more dreadful: that the man, either intentionally or accidentally, could easily crush his discovery, snuffing out her life before it even has begun. Such is the terrific power of a parent.

We sense immediately that Okina is not the type to intentionally do such a thing. He is a short and stout man who is content in his work and, as we shortly learn, quite happy in his simple life in the country, living in an unadorned hut with his loving wife. They have no children, so when the girl springs from Ouna's hands and transforms into a baby, they are ecstatic to become adoptive parents to an unexpected and very special child—a gift from Heaven, Okina calls her.

He is also too cautious to allow accidental harm to come to the girl. He and Ouna watch their new child with the utmost attention. Okina removes a pair of shears from the curious baby's path. When the baby hops off the edge of the hut while mimicking a pair of frogs, the parents rush to retrieve her.

Surely, though, there is an immense gap between intentional and accidental harm, and this is the territory the story of the film explores. It's the path paved with good intentions—the one that leads to unintended consequences and inevitable pain.

The story comes from a famous Japanese folktale—in fact, the oldest of the country's known stories. It concerns the tough position of parents, who want the best for their child yet must find a balance between guidance and demands, as well as the difficult state of a child, who wants to be an independent entity while recognizing and respecting the wishes of a parent. That the story involves a rapidly aging girl of unknown origin, a gathering of fairies, and a hut on the moon is inconsequential, really. The flights of fancy—including a literal flight across the countryside—in Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi's screenplay are minimal. For the most part, the story is earthbound. The magic is in the technique.

The girl (voice of Aki Asakura)—whom is later given the name Kaguya, which means "shining light"—is quite happy in the country. She plays with a group of friends, led by Sutemaru (voice of Kengo Kôra), and joins in singing a song about nature, which she somehow knows but in a minor key. While cutting more bamboo, Okina discovers lavish robes and gold nuggets, taking them as a sign that his adopted daughter is destined for a life greater than the one he can provide for her in the country.

He buys a mansion in the capital, and Kaguya, who has abruptly become a young woman, grudgingly learns the ways of a noble lady, because it's what her father wants. Soon enough, to Okina's delight, the wealthy and powerful suitors start calling, promising her rare and likely nonexistent treasures. She calls their bluff.

The story is simple but rich in its themes of the parent-child relationship, matters of class and custom, and the human instinct to deceive for both good and ill purposes. The driving forces are a father who so loves his daughter that his expectations for her slowly smother the true promise of her life and a daughter who can deny anyone of what he or she wants—save for her father. This is not a tale with any genuine villains (Even the suitors, whose phony stories of heroics and affection, are laughably or, in one case, tragically pathetic) or overarching conflict. It is one of well-intentioned people whose choices have woeful repercussions that they, as blinded by devotion and tradition as they are, could never imagine.

The animation is simple, as well, but it is an exquisite simplicity. Takahata and that incomparable team of artists at Studio Ghibli fully embrace the Impressionism that has so often been a part of the studio's work (mostly in the background art) but minimalize it to rough, charcoal lines and watercolors, which dance within and bleed from those edges.

The style is alive in a way that courageously flies in the face of contemporary, mainstream animation, with sequences that border on the abstract, most notably one that sees Kaguya fleeing from her home in violent scratches of black strokes. Even the film's most obvious use of computer animation is a seamless marriage of technology and style, offering a series of subjective shots showing Kaguya's final endeavor for unbridled freedom—from family, society, and even gravity.

That The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is as gorgeous as it is only emphasizes the mournful impact of its story. That the lines are imperfect and the colors are not quite complete serves as a complement to these characters, who are in the process of forming and rushing to get there. There's something fleeting about the film's animation, just as the whole tale is about the transitory nature of a life, especially one spent seeking the unobtainable goal of perfection.

Note: The film is being released in the United States with the original Japanese dialogue and with an English-language dub, which is unseen by me. As should always be the case, seek out the original.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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