AKA (English Title)
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
What to Expect
The animation on its own drew me to the film like nothing else would.
But – unlike a beginner as myself, to the other, more discerning fans of the creations of Studio Ghibli – known to be one of the boldest animation production houses in the world – the very mention of director Isao Takahata would definitely pique the interests of many.
Covering dynamic topics of survival (Hotaru no haka; a. k. a. Grave of the Fireflies), decisions (Omoide Poro Poro; a. k. a. Only Yesterday), and feeling like an outsider (Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko; a. k. a. Pom Poko), amongst other, sometimes lighter, works, Takahata has always strived to continue attaining a unique voice through both his realist and surrealist fiction forms.
Inspired by Japanese folktale Kaguya-hime, Takahata’s latest Academy Award nominated endeavor, however, raises many an important question.
Questions that need solutions more than answers.
What’s it About?
A bamboo cutter finds a little girl out of a bamboo shoot. Nicknamed “Takenoko” (Li’l Bamboo), the girl grows fast, and grows to inculcate – and spread around her – an unusual zest for life. Her life of frolic is cut short when her adoptive father – who means well – decides to relocate to the city to turn her into a princess, like he feels is in her destiny.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
On the outset, the animation doesn’t exactly feel wondrously detailed. As you get to the core of this film, however, you’ll slowly understand that for a folktale as this, it was highly necessary for the audience to feel like they were flipping through the pages of a wordless storybook with moving illustrations. Most master shots are given a slight vignette that enhances its appearance of being a part of a hypothetical page we didn’t know of.
Most Ghibli animation films have a certain style of how characters look on a physical level. There is a certain astuteness to their physical embodiments; a certain sense of realism in movement and function. The style of animation that Takahata chose for this film, however, is a very, very effective one. The creative leverages taken through the long, passionate sketching in each frame are not just evident, but – in this case – highly impactful.
Children are inquisitive, happy creatures who love to be themselves as much as they’re allowed the space to. Unfortunately, they’re oftentimes moulded to be a certain kind of person – without asking them what they want to necessarily be, and what their inner person wants them to be – by their well-meaning, but not necessarily “correct” parents. Sometimes, however, you’ve just got to let Kaguya-hime be the “Takenoko” she’s always loved being all her life. Else the more inquisitive human beings, with a thirst for knowledge and life will end up further descending down the depths of psychological hell that these eventual boundaries create for them. To have captured a progressively dark thread as this would be a rather tough act to achieve in your standard pop-culture animation movie.
Never with Takahata.
Succeeding spectacularly on both the animation and its rather deep thematic elements interwoven within the folktale, the narrative doesn’t for a second fear to get dark on a lot more than just the outer core. Besides the still-relevant issues the of flailing societal structure that have been captured, the tale also vehemently vocalizes its voice against women being treated as commodities at every step of the way; with many being raised on a rather patriarchal level to think that necessarily turning themselves into a conquest of sorts will equate to happiness. There is nasty irony in the choices the protagonist’s forced to make, and you as an audience will have enough leverage to find both humor and disgust in the situations that consecutively take place.
Takahata scores very high on emotion. There are scenes of poignance, exhilaration, happiness, and heartbreak that reach dazzling heights without manipulating you to feel the said emotions that pass you by; you have no control over what you feel. It feels natural. And for its presence as a folktale in its traditional sense, it does end up having some truly surreal moments, all of which feel are imperative turning points to the big reveal by the film’s rather befittingly quieting end.
The whole film is built on a mostly minimalist, (paradoxically) spacious world – sometimes raw; mostly organic, just like the movie’s emotion and the characters’ arcs. The music by Joe Hisaishi is terrific. Watch out for Flying, which appears sometime during the pre-climatic portions of the film, elevating a rather terrific surreal sequence that is bound to move the audience to no end. Fantastic orchestration allow the score to shift between the traditional and the western in classical; between the grand and the low-key.
To Perform or Not to Perform
Aki Asakura has an undeniably dynamic emotion, poured rightly into the protagonist, making her the perfect melange of the animated and the vocal. Nobuko Miyamoto comes a close second with her comforting tone she contributes to “Ōna” throughout the film’s runtime. Takeo Chii delivers superior versatility in expressiveness, with emotions ranging from raging anger to his poignant pleas rendered to perfection. Atsuko Takahata as the assertive Lady Sagami is excellent. Kengo Kora’s Sutemaru is an equally poignant performance, bringing in life to a character who isn’t unfortunately largely existent in the film’s entirety (for good reason). The others, appearing in bits and spurts, do a great job with their characters.
Mixing the varied forms of quiet realism and breathtaking surrealism, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya indeed stands out to be an EXCELLENT film that is as equally gratifying in its visual art form as it is in its narrative that never for a second fears its progressive descent into darkness. The film puts forth to its viewers a strong voice of the various sociopolitical and psychological issues that continue to plague various parts of this world, and how!
This is just the kind of stellar animation film that absolutely needs to be seen by everybody who has the chance to come across it. Give this one an earnest try. There are very high chances you’ll be blown away by how swiftly its low-key, exquisitely timeless charm manages to rob you of your heart.
Watch the trailer
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