THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA (2014)
reviewed by Audy Elliott
- Princess Kaguya
Sweeping, charming, magical, reflective, celebratory, warm, chasten, contemplative
Softness and simplicity in animation style
Beautifully captures fairy tale soul
Mostly enjoyable characters
Excellent voice acting from James Caan
Lack of energy at times in pacing
Movie’s running length was too long
Narrative at times was tangential
WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT
Legendary Studio Ghibli cofounder Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko) revisits Japan's most famous folktale in this gorgeous, hand-drawn masterwork, decades in the making. Found inside a shining stalk of bamboo by an old bamboo cutter (James Caan) and his wife (Mary Steenburgen), a tiny girl grows rapidly into an exquisite young lady (Chloë Grace Moretz). The mysterious young princess enthralls all who encounter her - but ultimately she must confront her fate, the punishment for her crime. From the studio that brought you Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and The Wind Rises comes a powerful and sweeping epic that redefines the limits of animated storytelling and marks a triumphant highpoint within an extraordinary career in filmmaking for director Isao Takahata.
This movie is a rendition of an old Japanese Folktale from the 10th century titled “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” Adapted over countless times, this rendition was created by the storytelling maestro of Isao Takahata whose visuals I have come to respect over a revered filmography exemplified by the hallmark Grave of the Fireflies. The first thing that struck me about The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is how dramatically different in animation style and design Takahata chooses. It immediately separates itself from other movies from Studio Ghibli. Where before the Studio Ghibli's uniformed animation and direction is classic Japanese with round big eyes, soft smooth textures, cartoonish but grounded fluidity, Princess Kaguya stands apart and is wonderful on the eyes. Immediately upon first sight the film separates itself allowing for definition of a wholly unique vibration with its animation that The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is its own separate entity of an animation film, and not part of a long anthology that is congruent or commonplace to its predecessors. It works alone, but also complements the catalog of films and production studio that it associates with.
The film’s world and picture frame is borderless. Frames are presented with no edges no lines, brushstrokes lend your eyes to the colorless, formless, corners but one could easily argue that there is a world beyond those barren borders challenging your logic that there could be nothing possibly there, but that is the point: this movie always proves its reality by not prescribing to yours. That is what is effective about its mythology. Takahata delivers his world with such confidence, that you believe this world actually exists and all others are only make-believe. The white outlines are frames to the picture allowing for the watercolors to bleed until its transparent existence dries sprayed out in its own colors. But the borders are flourishes of unfinished art direction, showing that within its limits, we are dealing with a story that is by virtue - limitless. The white space allows for us to know that there is a great mystical unknowing that exists beyond the characters comprehension – with that there is an uncertainty of what "Little Bamboo" is purposed for. It’s open to interpretation depending on your vantage point and also to the individuality of the characters and their nominal attachments. You cannot trap “Little Bamboo” because she really doesn’t belong to anyone: she is adopted by the woodcutter and his wife, but they aren’t her real parents even though she loves them. She befriends and becomes affectionately close with a young man she grew up with named Sutemaru in which the relationship is starcrossingly remorseful at best, and her beauty which garners the attention many royal suitors never becomes theirs to behold regardless of each misguided attempt. The film objectifies her mostly in a way in which makes you understand her, sympathize with her but you find yourself never fully relating to her.
When she is first introduced "Little Bamboo" is ushered by a montage of her early stages of rebirth – she is immediately treated as a fascination, almost of superhero proportions, capturing a Japanses fairy tale that meshes cohesively with that of a post modern pop comic hero mythology. The fascinating thing with this film is that there is a lingering familiarity to the story’s processional delivery but it still remains fascinating and original, never stale. In a time in which audiences ask for new material, new stories and new ideas, this comes along entrenched in response to the feasted movie going clamoring that not only delivers, but delivers in ways that aren’t profound in its own historical reputation but careful in a manner that needs to be accepted on its own terms and not yours. The movie starts out with James Caan wonderfully voice acting as the wood cutter. On one of his typcial outings in the woods he comes across a glowing jade bamboo, and from inside it births a little girl. Immediately Caan’s woodcutter adopts her calling her “princess” without a trace of conscious. The child is not of this world and has powers that not only amaze Mr. and Mrs. Woodcutter but also inspire with a spirited release onto the other people that come across her otherworldly brilliance. The first act builds up her character in its most origin form. I saw significant parallels to DC’s Man of Steel himself. Both are from another planet – both are adopted by earth parents – both are given a name (Clark and "Little Bamboo") and a alter ego (Superman and Princess Kaguya) and both have powers and come from a small rural almost innocent simple lifestyle and domesticity (Supes from Smallville and Kaguya from the woods). They both have responsibilities that they both are bounded by duties beyond their own self-interests. Kaguya is forced upon her father that she is to be of nobility (because the heaven’s said so – I mean what else do you do with a girl birthed in a tree). With the bamboo tree, the family receives silks, gold and other materials that convince the father that his “Little Bamboo” is from a higher divinity and therefore must be treated as such. Of course, she wants to stay back home and live in simplicity with her friends, but the father imprudently chafes, moving the family to the capital, and onto delusions of grandeur of rubbing their raw elbows with the elite in the name of Princess (just like Clark has a higher calling in help saving our planet by being a superhero, leaving his small town onto Metropolis). Like all origin stories dealing with heroes, or persons of mythical proportions there are heavy similarities between both but this is where its ends as far as Kaguya is concerned.
Majority of the movie is anchored in the melancholy of Kaguya’s internal conflict of doing what’s right for her family (particularly, for her father) and what she personally wants to pursue in life but is not allowed to. As with all things fluently tied in Japanese culture, the film is a cautionary tale of honor and how one (Kaguya) reacts strangled by it and how others (suitors, her father) sometimes commit dishonor at the sacrifice of Kaguya for pure gratification. Moments are punctuated with a wonderful score. It can be dramatic flourishing with emotion and warmth, but also necessary when trying to enforce the mood of Takahata’s direction. For all of Kaguya’s never before seen style from a Studio Ghibli film, there were long periods of time in which the movie suffered in energy. I found myself wanting to latch onto something beyond the story’s visuals to where I could find myself overwhelmed by the sheer audacious attempt of the plot that could match that mesmerizing art and storyboards.
There were too many times in which Takahata would lose himself in showing every unnecessary detail, every nuance of the world he created that it came at the cost of a tighter presentation. Coming in at 2 hours and 17 minutes the story is too simplistic and rote to sustain that length of time in this movie. The production of the movie possessed a visual that was spectacular enough, characterized by dynamic action scenes time to time, but the story albeit epic in the folklore, found itself shouting aloud to my deaf ears. I felt as trapped in boredom at certain moments as Kaguya did in her royal court. To make matters worse, Chloë Grace Moretz (who I like tremendously) wasn’t the right actress. Her voice couldn’t capture a deeper intangibility a movie and role like this required. She came across more like a person reading lines, than a person becoming those lines. Her tweeny raspy tone of voice was ill-fitting onto the character and felt disappointingly out of place with the movie’s overall magic spell of the beautifully crafted world building it achieves. Moretz plays Kaguya in a straight forward manner. The character herself exudes a gracefulness and kind of approachable girl next door type where it’s not hard to empahtaize with her suppressions of making everyone around her happier than she could ever allow herself to be. It’s not hard to understand why Kaguya is special. Takahata does a wonderful job of making sure it happens no matter how hard Moretz’s voice tries to sublimate the character. With most of these animation movies, the challenge for actors is not to overshine the character they are voicing on the screen. It is harder not to put in a fine performance than it is to hand in a disfigured one; however, James Caan as the woodcutter and Kaguya’s adopted father was convincing. His voice was one of believability in which you could imagine that voice coming out of that two dimensional character. Caan, endowed in his timbre of concern, carefulness and domineering that casts a shadow on Mary Steenburgen’s role as the mother, or even Moretz. Caan inhibited the character in a way that was vital to the movie’s overall ethos to where the woodcutter is both the understandable good natured man and feudal Japanese stage mom. Without that conviction, the demonstration of a paternal excellence allocated to Kaguya all that he feels is existent but he is also taking away all the joy and happiness that made her fall in love with life in the first place. It’s his actions that irony rears its ugly head, and with that Caan “Falstaffs” the woodcutter to a place of mournful symphony conducted between actor, character and plot.
What’s really intriguing about the film is that those (like me) who are not familiar with the actual folklore itself, is kind of left in the dark of the realities on which the world holds its explanations. Its presentation is very meditative, and you grow with Kaguya as she is discovering what the world possibly holds and how she could very well steal it from its grasp. Because of the movie’s charm the audience doesn’t feel compelled to be let in on the secret of why this girl is in a bamboo and why its shits out gold coins like a super Mario brothers green pipe. You just go with it. You’re willing to be lead into its sumptuousness of how it’s being told, not why it's being told. This is also helped out because Studio Ghibli’s reputation of long standing quality of films. You never have to guess with them, just trust that you would be dropped off in the same place you were picked up when it started only more exhilarated - and Princess Kaguya for the most part gives you that. With Takahata withholding the truth from us you take it for granted as you are too occupied feasting on the art enticing you to plunge further in the movie’s mythology while abruptly being rewarded by the mystery of what Kaguya stands for and how that is representational to the audience and how she will be used towards the film's harrowing climax.
This scene is one of the more intense moments in this fairly light film. Close up on Kaguya shows her dread as she is fearful of the thought of marrying a potential suitor that she wants no part of. The music delivers a hammer of fractured emotions combined with wonderful animation, transporting the viewer into to the film’s reality relating a certain precursor of grief stricken melodrama in the most sincere of ways. She runs out of her house like a bullet train taking the sharp, broken animation with her in such a precise trained perspective, narrowing the tension and leading the eye as you are witness to a powerful experience because of the intimacy shared between you and Kaguya in the scene. Framed as a long tracking shot, shedding her clothes symbolizes her stripping all self doubt, anger, and negativity that she has bottled up inside her up to that point, leaving her no choice but to run setting up one of the better visual action scenes mixing art, motive, style and heartache.
Princess Kaguya for all intents and purposes is a fine film that struggles with how to balance its disproportionate amounts of never before seen animation against a simplistic and at times lethargic adaptation. Takahata, after a long 15 year period, triumphs for the most part leaving you almost breathless from all of its uncanny visual wonderment helping to offset his decision of an unbearable run time, tangential narrative structure and lack of much needed energy. Had the movie been shorter in length and tighter with its pacing then it would had been a more, well-rounded, filmgoing experience. But it doesn’t really need to be for you to be awed by its splendor. It delivers with its visuals, original storytelling, engaging characters, putting The Tale of the Princess Kaguya over the top rewarding us in this stratospheric birthright of a Ghibli film. You won’t necessarily fall in love completely with this bamboo, but you will appreciate it long enough afterwards to not cut it down.
2.5 out of 4