One of the most impressive things about The Tale of Princess Kaguya is its dual nature as a delicate epic and a powerful slower burn that’s never dull. It’s like watching a feather turn to stone over two hours before being knocked down by it (and those who know Grave of the Fireflies won’t be surprised that Kaguya has that kind of strength). This is a fine followup for Isao Takahata, who brings a half-century of animated storytelling and the tearfully hopeful Fireflies legacy to this ancient folktale.
As the cultural ambassador for Japan, it’s fitting that Studio Ghibli is the one sharing “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” – the country’s oldest surviving narrative – on this scale with the rest of the world. The story features an older man who discovers a tiny princess growing out of a bamboo stalk, who he takes home and raises as his own daughter. He also finds a hefty amount of gold, which allows him and his wife to bring the little bambina to the city to grow up in a mansion as a proper lady. The princess, who spent her earliest days skinning her knees and climbing trees with close friends in the country, rebels at every turn.
Kaguya is never in a rush to tell its story, yet every scene is imbued with engaging interactions and mesmerizing artwork. Mixing watercolor and ink pad styles, it doesn’t look like the Ghibli movies that have become world renowned thanks to Miyazaki. It also doesn’t have the pressure point adventure that movies like Spirited Away feature, and if those Ghibli projects are basted in magical realism, Kaguya is only lightly, joyously peppered with it. All of that to say that this is a different brand of masterpiece – one that shares common themes with its studio siblings (nature vs industrialization; appreciation of sorrow and happiness as equal constituent parts of life) while offering a change of pace that proves we still have a lot to learn from the aging masters.
A major key to falling in love with the film is falling in love with Kaguya. She’s a gift from Heaven and a tourist who revels in fresh discovery, whether it’s stealing from the melon farmer with her childhood friends or torturing high class suitors as a young woman whose loveliness has become the stuff of rumor-passed legend. The heartbreak of caring so deeply for her is the recognition that her life is never her own, the her victories are carved out of a small corner of the room even when she’s subverting social expectations like a pro.
There’s nothing new or particularly fresh about the treatment of individual freedom as a virtue far surpassing social status, but Kaguya (and Kaguya) approaches it with a pristine balance of tongue-in-cheek humor, rousing determinism and flourishing sadness. In that sense, this is the story of one life that’s told with all life in mind. It’s the embrace of the full spectrum of experiences that allows for the death of a nobleman to be curtly hilarious and a daughter hugging her mother to be rock-in-the-gut devastating. Kaguya’s adopted father can never see beyond his own dreams of wealth and the assumption that plucked eyebrows and courtly life are the height of satisfaction for “every” young woman, but she doesn’t want blackened teeth; she wants to smile.
As excellent as it is, I have to assume that parents will find it even more affecting. Kaguya is walking within the first days of her birth and standing as tall as her adolescent friends within a few months – giving a literal treatment to how fast kids grow up in the eyes of their moms and dads. Embedded in that fantasy, and in the story itself, is the great tragedy and triumph of our lives. Children don’t stay children forever.
Kaguya is born from classical elements, but it also cleverly shifts animation styles alongside its tones. When the princess furiously runs away from home, the soft focus gives way to raw, frantic line work. When we’re in the country, the visuals are practically dreamlike compared to the clarity of the expensive city.
This is a glorious film that shows the restraint and confidence of a veteran filmmaker. Sweet, sour and consistently entertaining, it’s a rare movie that only announces its presence in your heart once it has access to the strings.
The Upside: Beautiful, varied animation; a stirring look at every emotion; ridiculously lovable main character
The Downside: Slight drag once we get to the city
On the Side: Its 10th century source material is an example of proto-science fiction.