With Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises, having been reviewed here last year, I have been waiting; as I assume all fans of Studio Ghibli have been doing, for what could be possibly Isao Takahata’s final foray into filmmaking, and perhaps ever so slight more frightening, the second to last Studio Ghibli film that may ever be released.
This is, somewhat surprisingly, only Takhata’s fifth film with Studio Ghibli. The others being the harrowing account of World War II Japan in Grave of the Fireflies; the desire to return to a simpler life away in a modernising world in Only Yesterday; his commentary of our need to protect the environment via tanuki (Japanese Raccoon Dogs) in Pom Poko, to his vignette styled tale of modern family life of My Neighbors the Yamadas. All distinct from each other and elegant in their own ways, Takahata has always stood apart from his more magical, whimsical and perhaps more prolific colleague Hayao Miyazaki. While not having the extensive filmography Miyazaki has, or the Disney comparison, Takahata has always crafted beautifully poignant tales whenever put in the director’s chair and, one hopes, this has continued with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
Before I move into the review proper, I will say that, unlike my The Wind Rises review, I shall be using the Japanese voice actors instead of the English Dub voice actors as I watched the film in its original Japanese. But don’t worry; I will be putting a Wikipedia link at the end so you can look who the English Dub cast are. And on that note, let’s go to the obligatory overview.
Based on the Japanese folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, it begins with the humble Bamboo Cutter named Sanuki no Miyatsuko (Takeo Chii) seeing a bright white light which, when he approaches it, sprouts into a bamboo shoot and revealed to have inside a tiny princess in all her finery. Believing that she is a gift from the heavens, the Bamboo Cutter takes her home where, upon being taken in the Bamboo Cutter Wife’s arms (Nobuko Miyamoto), transforms into a baby. Calling her “Princess”, the couple soon realise that she grows at an accelerated rate, being quickly nicknamed as Takenoko, meaning Little Bamboo (Aki Asakura), by the children of the neighbourhood.
As Takenoko grows and plays with the children from the village, revelling in freedom and developing a close bond with Sutemaru (Kengo Kora), the bamboo cutter discovers gold and fine robes with more bamboo shoots. Taking these as proof of Little Bamboo’s divine royalty, he forcibly moves his wife and Little Bamboo to the capital to behind her training as a noble woman. Confined to the capital and her nobility training, Takenoko (later named Kaguya-hime) yearns for her past life of freedom to live life full of joy and hardships while the Bamboo Cutter continually pushes her towards a life of nobility in the pursuit of “her happiness”.
Before I can even contemplate speaking about anything else, I must talk about the art style. In an age where computer animation has taken the cinematic world by storm and the majority of animation companies throwing their lot in with the forever advancing tide of new animation, it is gratifying to know that traditional animation’s embers have not dwindled yet with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya showing that beauty is not solely possible through advanced software.
Every frame appears to have been made with such delicate care that you cannot but hope to be captivated by such dedication to a seemingly dying craft. I understand that some films are still made occasionally, like Song of the Sea (a film that I really I hope to see), Disney’s surprisingly enjoyable 2011 film Winnie the Pooh, and the delightful Ernest et Célestine, but they are now too few to surface in a market saturated with computer animated films. But The Tale of the Princess Kaguya shows us what we have been missing. Films that appear to have been painstakingly drawn by hand over years in order to tell us a beautiful story. It’s not trying to be modern, far from it. It eschews that crowd, instead walking its own path towards times gone by, and it is all the more marvellous for it. It does not try to compete with the competition; rather, it rises above it and shines a light brighter that no amount of processing power can achieve.
The plot derives from a tenth century Japanese folk tale which, aside from some alterations and additions, appears to have been translated to the big screen quite faithfully. It reminds me somewhat of the Buddhist monk and author Kenkō whose works, although centuries old, still hold disquieting and intriguing truths that show, in some ways, how little we have moved as a people yet also have passages that leave you breathing with comfort knowing that some things have been consigned to the past.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya centres on freedom, or rather, the lack of freedom women have in elite Japanese society. As a child, Takenoko can play with the village children while singing songs about the birds, bugs and beasts. However this is all stripped away by Takenoko’s father who, believes Takenoko should be taken to the capital to live the life of a noble, despite whatever objections Takenoko has.
While it is not surprising to note that women in the past were subject to the whims of their fathers, and men in general, it is interesting to see that the Bamboo Cutter is actively trying to make Takenoko happy but in a very misguided way. The Bamboo Cutter sincerely believes that the Heavens are telling him to raise Takenoko as a princess and that this will bring her true happiness, despite the fact that Takenoko is visibly unhappy with this arrangement. What makes this more infuriating is that the Bamboo Cutter is completely converted to noble lifestyle and, while his wife maintains her more humble attire and lifestyle which Takenoko desires, the Bamboo Cutter disregards this believing that only through social mobility shall Takenoko obtain happiness while he rises to greater social prominence.
Yet while women are shown to be second class to men and subject to the social etiquette of their time, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya spends the majority of its time showing the lives on women from different viewpoints from different women. The Bamboo Cutter’s Wife gives us the perspective the doting mother who, although love Takenoko, does nothing against her husband’s wishes. Lady Sagami (Atsuko Takahata) allows us to look from the perspective of the elite which, although alien to us, shows us what societal expectations of women are meant to be and that it is something practiced and reinforced by women as well as men.
Me no Warawa (Tomoko Tabata) gives us the perspective of a servant who, although respectful of the societal demands of the elite, is not bound to them in the same way as the other characters. She can leave the house on her own, unlike Takenoko who needs everything arranged for her, she cares for Takenoko like a friend when she gives her cherry blossoms when she can’t leave the house to view them and does several other things which I can’t say because of spoilers. Also, Me no Warawa is delightfully humorous and allows a film that has enough emotional weight to leave you lying motionless on a settee even after the credits are over to have some joy in it.
Finally, and most obviously, we have Takenoko herself, the proclaimed beauty known to all in the capital as Kaguya-hime, who feels reminiscent of Sophocles’ Antigone in being a tragic character. Once free, she is “destined” to be a woman of nobility with tighter and tighter restrictions put upon her, her freedom slowly taken away from her. Takenoko is almost no longer an independent being, being sought after by high ranking officials and princes as if a prized artefact. Takahata’s portrayal of Takenoko allows us to see the vile commodification of beauty and women, something needed to be held onto tightly or put in a cage, lest they be something not controlled by man.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a passion project which, like The Wind Rises, is something glorious to behold. It’s a swan song to a time gone by, a time honoured tale and dying craft. It’s beautiful, touching and sorrowful in equal regards. This is a film that will stand the test of time, just as its original tale has, and will most certainly be a Studio Ghibli film to tower over others, both within the Ghibli filmography, and the world of motion picture in general. If this is goodbye Takahata, thank you for giving us this and all your other films. You shall be missed.
Thank you for reading this and hopefully I won’t take an absolute age with the next review. Please like, comment and follow this blog if you really liked this article! Also, if you’re really in the mood for liking and following things, go and click on my follow Twitter and Like Facebook buttons to keep up to date with all my posts. And as promised, here’s that link to the English voice cast. Thank again for reading!