I can look back to a few experiences that completely changed the way that I watch movies; one of these is the first time that I saw Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Oddysey, which showed me the purest example of film as an art form that I had ever seen. I saw it not too long after I graduated high school and had never experienced a movie that expressed complex and confusing thoughts in the way that it did nor in such a visually stunning way. The film went beyond conventional narrative and filmmaking to deliver something entirely new to me.
In a similar manner, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya represents a level of artistry that I had never before seen in an animated feature. From the brilliant mind of Studio Ghibli’s lesser-known co-founder Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday), the film is an adaptation of Japan’s oldest folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. It tells the story of a strange girl (Asakura/Moretz) who is discovered inside a bamboo stalk and who shoots through her childhood at a rapid pace. Her adoptive parents (Chii/Caan, Miyamoto/Steenburgen) bring her into the city, where she is groomed as a noblewoman and comes to be widely sought after for her beauty.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is simply gorgeous; its visual style combines watercolor painting and charcoal sketching to create something that is entirely its own. Personal and often unnecessary care is given to the smallest details, such as a toddler crawling after a frog or the princess casually putting her hair up. The character and quality of the animation even change with the tone of the story, most noticeably in one instance in which the princess’ despair completely overwhelms her. As the world is stripped away and sound is simplified to almost nothing, the scene so perfectly expresses the character’s personality and mood and presents such a perfect image of her story that to me, it fully represents the reasons that animation exists as a medium. Because there are no live actors or sets and no real world in which the filmmakers must do their work, the artists are free to fully express themselves as artists, without the constraints of the real world. Rather than use animation to simply bring color to a bland story as many animators are wont to do, the creators here use the deep story and visuals to produce situations and imagery that would otherwise be impossible to create. The movie spends much of its run time grounded firmly in reality – sometimes uncomfortably so – but at its most powerful, it extends far beyond what live action can achieve.
The film is also thematically rich, particularly exploring the societal roles of Japanese women in the time and place depicted. When she is no longer allowed to live as a simple country girl, her life becomes dedicated to presenting herself as beautiful and submissive to the world. She is instructed to sit still and to look pretty, never mind the fact that she is often hidden from view. She is whisked away to be married as soon as she reaches puberty and is told by both the men and women around that a rich husband will be the source of her greatest happiness.
Kaguya herself is a wonderful character to watch. She is at times unbelievably infectiously happy but at others overwhelmingly sad. After all, she started walking over the course of a day and grew into the body of a teenager in less than a year’s time. Her innocence is shown as a blessing and a curse, and seeing her interact with the variety of people she encounters provides the film with much of its emotional backbone.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya uses the language of cinema in a way that, in my experience watching animation, has been truly special. Through blocking of scenes, visual symbolism, color, and much more, the film is able to speak to us beyond its surface narrative and to tell a more robust story. It makes full use of the opportunities unique to animation and combines them with tools of the great live-action masterpieces of the past to elevate it from something pretty to a true work of art.
The film, for example, often separates the princess from the rest of the world, particularly in scenes in which she is hidden from sight. She is often placed behind a screen or behind bamboo blinds for narrative purposes, but even when these are not present, there is often a visual element between her and other characters, such as a bamboo stalk or a tall blade of grass. While not forming a true wall between the characters, the viewer can see them separated and feel their distance.
This film also offers a wonderful experience of sound and silence through the use of its score, which consists of tracks mostly under two minutes long. This allows each moment of music to have its power and meaning, while not overwhelming the viewing experience or directing the viewer along every step of the film’s vast emotional landscape. Through contrapuntal folk sounds or delicate solo piano, the film is able to sing its story to us as it shows it and tells it. The musical pieces and the silence between them are given the full attention that they deserve and in turn give us exactly what we need.
I cannot recommend this film highly enough. While critical response at its release was overwhelmingly positive, far too few people have heard of it, and even fewer have seen it. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a movie that you will never forget and offers an experience not quite like anything else you will ever see.
“Flower, bear fruit, and die
Be born, grow up, and die
Still the wind blows, the rain falls
The waterwheel goes round
Lifetimes come and go in turn”