The Tale of Princess Kaguya

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

A poor bamboo cutter plies his trade in the remotest part of Japan. One day, while harvesting bamboo, he comes upon a new shoot that shines brightly from within. What he sees is a diminutive, beau child that fits in the palm of his hand. He takes this tiny treasure home to his wife and the couple decides to raise the child as their own in “The Tale of Princess Kaguya.”

Studio Ghibli has been producing some of the world’s greatest animation features for nearly 30 years by noted anime artists and founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. The studio’s film catalog is a true embarrassment of riches with (though not limited to) “Grave of the Fireflies,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “The Wind Rises.” “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is another of Isao Takahata’s beautiful contributions to Ghibli’s fine roster of animes.

Animated films as we have come to know them, are born via computers rather that the eye and the hand (and heart) of an artist. It is wonderful to see a movie that is drawn by hand and colored in lively pastels and tells a well-loved Japanese folktale. The coming of age story of a mystical and mysterious child who grows into Princess Kaguya, enthralling all with her grace, charm and beauty is magical.

When the old bamboo cutter brings the tiny princess home, he and his wife learn of the baby girl’s special powers as she grows at an accelerated rate, learning to crawl, walk and run in a matter of minutes. The story takes off from there when her adoptive father finds a magic bamboo tree that dispenses gold and the finest silk cloth. This wealth drives the old bamboo cutter to move his tiny family to Tokyo to find a life befitting his magical adopted daughter. This means, though, that she must leave her beloved friends and rustic life.

“The Tale of Princess Kaguya” shifts gears with the princess, now named Princess Kaguya, attracting the attention of suitors from the highest levels of Japanese society, including the emperor. But, the mystery that surrounds her, and the demands she makes upon the suitors should ensure should ensure her peaceful solitude. But, in the following years, they return from their quests with her requested items to take her hand. This leads to yet another dynamic for this 10th Century Japanese fable.

The story, based on the fable “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” is a wonderful amalgamation of beautiful images, often breath-taking, and a charming and sweetly told story. The mythology mixed with classic hand-drawn animation makes for a near masterpiece. I saw the film in Japanese with subtitles, but it will also be released in the US dubbed in English by an all star cast. I give it an A-.

Hiyao Mizayaki isn't the only great Japanese maker of hand drawn animated films at Ghibli Studios. Its cofounder, writer/director Isao Takahata ("Grave of the Fireflies"), has adapted the 10th century The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter as "The Tale of Princess Kaguya," a stunningly beautiful watercolor rendition about the girl sent from the moon to live among humans to atone for a sin.

The story itself is a bit strange.  Kaguya is found by the poor old bamboo cutter inside a glowing bamboo stalk, but when he brings her home, his wife takes the tiny royal and Kaguya immediately turns into a human child.  Takahata's depiction of the baby is delightful as she rolls and crawls, learning movement from a frog, but this child grows rapidly, forming a relationship with young Sutemaru.  But this true love is not to be as her beauty becomes known far and wide, drawing the attention of the Emperor and five noble suitors, each of whom she sets an impossible task for in order to gain her hand in marriage.

Takahata injects humor into his story as the lowly bamboo cutter and his wife find their stations elevated to a royal household, but the film ends in melancholy as Kaguya experiences the joy and sadness of human life.  In one scene of astonishing power, the filmmaker changes from pastel lyricism to impressionistic jagged blacks and reds as Kaguya flees her home.

Grade:  A-
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