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The Tale of Princess Kaguya Review (Kaguya Hime no Monogatari)

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Kaguya-Hime is the first feature film from Isao Takahata in 14 years, and it is his fifth film for Studio Ghibli.  Takahata, who was never the machine that Miyazaki was in terms of production, is the first to admit that this film may also realistically be his last, which means that both of the primary creative founders of Studio Ghibli have now presented what is likely their swan songs (Miyazaki’s earlier Wind Rises being the other).  There have been rumblings recently about the fate of Studio Ghibli in the future, and whether it may stop producing films altogether.  I would personally be okay with such an outcome – it is not the brand of Ghibli that I have been a fan of all these years, rather it was that particular collection of people – Miyazaki, Takahata, Hisaishi, Yoshifumi Kondo, and their contemporaries.  When this group stops making films together, simply continuing the brand of Ghibli will not guarantee that their legacy of film making will continue.  Indeed, I have not found myself enjoying the work of the newer directors nearly as much.  But, I digress.

Kaguya-Hime is an adaptation of a famous Japanese folk legend involving a girl who is found inside a bamboo tree by a bamboo cutter.  He believes she is a gift from heaven, and she quickly grows, in a few years, into a beautiful young woman.  She eventually draws the interest of numerous suitors, including several princes, who come to her and make proposals.  She is uninterested, and tells each of them to perform a specific task in order to win her- a task which each prince either fails or attempts to cheat in.  Years pass, and eventually she begins to remember her past, and that she was brought here temporarily from the moon, and must return, leaving her new life.  Her father and mother try to keep her, enlisting the aid of the Emperor to do so, but she accepts her fate and returns to the moon, forgetting everything of her time on Earth.

The summary above is more or less the story from the fairy tale, and the film follows it closely.  This is not a Miyazaki-style adaptation, where bits and pieces of source material are gathered and molded into a completely new shape.  I have not seen many of the live-action adaptations of this story, but it is hard to imagine that they feel more appropriate than Takahata’s stylistic approach here from purely a visual perspective.  Takahata has always been more of experimenter in terms of visual style, whether it was the realistic faces in Omohide Poroporo or the cartoon-strip aesthetics of Yamadas.   Here he establishes a loose, almost impressionistic  look  along with several scenes in which the art style changes to reflect the mood of the scene (such as a scene of anger where the lines become rough and abstract).  I also particularly enjoyed all the scenes which took place in the capital city, where Takahata has a bit of fun in lampooning the style, surroundings, and dress of the nobility while at the same time portraying their elegance.  The visuals are definitely one of the most appealing aspects of the film.

I had more of a neutral response to the story itself.  Partially, I suppose, this comes from the fact for someone who knows the legend beforehand, the story unravels as one would expect, and it is the execution rather than the story-writing that is the attraction.  According to Takahata himself, his intention with the film was to give more voice to the princess herself, whereas traditionally, though being the main player in the legend, she had a relatively passive role.  This does change the flavour of the story somewhat, giving the princess a rebellious character quite out of line with the nobility, which to my understanding is not really a part of the original story.  Other than that, Takahata does not introduce any overtly cinematic elements into the plot.  The parents and friends, for example, are relatively abstract characters from beginning to end.  This allows the story to retain the impression of a folktale, while at the same time being different from traditional Ghibli films.

I saw the film at its North American premiere at the Toronto Internationl Film Festival.  Takahata himself was at the screening I attended, so I was quite happy to see him in-person for the first (and probably last) time.  I must mention that the Toronto audience’s reaction to Ghibli films tends to confuse me at times – the crowd always seems to laugh at places I don’t find humorous, and I wonder if there is something of a tendency for Western audiences to interpret animated films as being more lighthearted than they were perhaps intended to be, due to the very fact that they are animated  (that’s not to say Kaguya-hime lacks humour – I was actually surprised by how much humour is in the film) .  It is probably true that this distraction might have affected my ability to enjoy the film on its own merit, so I will certainly be revisiting it on my own terms when it is available.

2 responses so far

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2 Responses to “The Tale of Princess Kaguya Review (Kaguya Hime no Monogatari)”

  1. KVLon Jan 7th 2015

    Looking forward to seeing the film – the trailer blew me away with its artistic style.

  2. patrickon Jun 13th 2015

    Finally have seen what may be the last of Studio Ghibli. As there’s not a decent movie house within an hour’s drive I had to wait until ‘Princess Kaguya’ and ‘The Wind Rises’ were available at our lending library and watch them at home.

    The pleasure I got out of these films has almost been subsumed by the realization that both Mssrs. Takahata and Miyazaki have most probably produced their final works. When I discovered this genre less than a decade ago I could scarce believe such stories were being produced and presented. My late father discovered them at about the same time, and each new viewing (at least to us) and new release provided us with hours of conversation in his final years. I am sure I will continue to follow anime – film, television, and related soundtracks – but I cannot imagine anything so engaging as Studio Ghibli’s output. How very Japanese – a bittersweet memory of, for all we know, what is probably passing into history…

    ‘Nothing gold can stay’

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