Finding Meaning in Tale of Princess Kaguya, A Movie Review

19 Nov

kaguya-poster-compressedBy Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)

Ever since the news broke late Summer about Studio Ghibli taking a break in producing feature films, just what this production house is able to do next is subject to speculation. Depending on what fans read into producer Toshio Suzuki’s statement, thankfully this studio is not closing its doors. This company is merely taking a break.

When everyone is back, the group will reassess their future. With the ‘retirement’ of famed director Hayao Miyazaki, who helped establish this company, the future seems bleak. Recently, it has been reported that he said that he will continue making anime until he is longer able to and that’s good news. Production may be slower and that’s fine.

Fortunately, co-founder Isao Takahata has not indicated that he is retiring. His output may be slower when considering his last film, My Neighbour the Yamadas, was made in 1999. His latest work, The Tale of Princess Kaguya took a year to arrive in North America. The wait is certainly well worth it as the film skillfully reproduces the same visual style as his previous work and goes further. This film beautifully fuses a watercolour panache upon an artistic landscape that’s found in many a Japanese wall scroll.

For example, Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa is elegantly recalled in later scenes when the story takes to the sea. But in a tale that’s set in the countryside of Japan, the hills and valleys are fantastically rendered in simplicity. The tale starts with woodcutter by the name of Okina (voiced by James Caan in the English dub) discovering a ningyō-like spirit (Chloë Grace Moretz) nestled in a glowing bamboo shoot. Believing that the heavens have smiled upon him and his misfortune, this man takes the little fairy home so both he and his wife, Ona (Mary Steenburgen), can take care of her. However, as the baby girl quickly grows up to be a beautiful young lass, the patriarch thinks that this country life is not for her. He believes that a better life can be made in the Imperial city. Ona is content in their life, but Okina sees more.

Perhaps, in his blindness, he does not realize that Sutemaru (Darren Criss) is very taken with her. But before a romance can develop, she is whisked away to go live in a higher society, where her beauty becomes legendary. Interestingly, she never receives a name until arriving in this big city. Through a special ceremony, she’s known as Kaguya, which means “radiant night,” and that only foreshadows what’s to come later. Suitors arrive from everywhere to court her and she feels nothing for any of them. The way they express themselves reveals that there are lessons to be learned. These men treat her more like a trophy than a person. When five top ranking nobles come asking for her hand, their materialistic objectification of her gets justly rebuffed. She issues challenges for them to find the objects they compare her to if they are to win her hand.

This adaptation of the classic Tale of the Bamboo Cutter by Takahata is very faithful to the source and its various interpretations. A few details are added on to more than removed. The subplot with Sutemaru is a splendid touch since it helps add a fantastic sequence straight out of My Neighbour Totoro where dreams and reality blends. However, a few explanations are not really offered either, namely in why this sprite arrived in a bamboo forest for Okina to find. Was it fate that decided that he would find her?

In Takahata’s version, some viewers might be left wondering if she was sent down from “Heaven” to teach Okina a few lessons about true objectivity. Although he wants what’s best, perhaps removing her from country life is the wrong action. Some people are content to eke out a ‘hillbilly’ life despite the hardships that come with the territory. Ona realizes this and ignores the protests from her husband. Amusingly, she decides to maintain a bit of that old country inside an estate through a crop garden. Okina built a lavish home so that it can attract attention which shows his motives are questionable at best. Just like in Pom Poko and My Neighbour the Yamadas, Takahata’s narrative style includes studies of the human condition. With Kaguya, he continues looking at the problems faced within the family. Mother and daughter have an understanding, but Okina is in his own world.

Even in this day and age, no foreign film can get a redo. The translation and English dubbing are decent. Sometimes casting well-known names is simply a matter of drawing attention to the film, and the roles cast can sometimes be hit and miss. Steenburgen is perfect as Ona. Caan, however, takes getting used to. There are moments where his fine acting does not suit what’s projected in the animation of Okina’s frustration. The performers might not have had the benefit of seeing the original film or had it screened when the new vocal tracks were being recorded. Unless production details are revealed, any process may have been used in creating this new version of this Studio Ghibli film. Thankfully, Moretz did a great job of emoting all of Kaguya’s various moods. For foreign films, it’s often best to view the film subtitled so the emotional context from the original actors is fully understood. Sadly, these days, not many people can be bothered to read text messages nestled in a film but yet they are always glued to their cell phones. Those devices are put away when the moving pictures catch their attention, but how often does that happen?


The artistry in Princess Kaguya will have some folks want to psychoanalyze the visual content. The raw power in some scenes equates to what feelings Kaguya is conveying. To truly emote in a CGI film is nearly impossible, and to feel the expression in the charcoal drawn lines or notice the roughness in the motion shows that emotional angst is being felt.

Even the musical experience is to be commended. Composer Joe Hisaishi is one of those talents who can never do wrong, and the heights he reaches is just as mystical as those haunting moments reached in past works, especially in the dance of the ghosts parade sequence from Pom Poko.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a spectacular film that will speak to viewers on different levels. Its humanitarian drama is a sombre one. Despite all the flaws that this young girl has witnessed in how people act, she’s willing to forgive. She does not want to leave, but sadly she will have to. In what Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan, believes, humanity is essentially capable of doing good, and that’s what gives this film a simple message of hope. Kaguya is that shining beacon that everyone can find glowing once every month in the night sky. In An American Tail, that’s what Fievel sings about one evening, making both films a classic for all time.

4½ Stars out of 5

One Response to “Finding Meaning in Tale of Princess Kaguya, A Movie Review”

  1. Aaron Yandell 2017-05-08 at 2:44 pm #

    Having had first watched both this film and Tom Moore’s Song if the Sea during a low point in my life, all while focusing on my story, I may or may not have deluded what the story was saying by comparing them to Song of the Sea and my story.

    Anyhow, this movie seemed to depict the superficial side of life, how it restricts us from being authentic with ourselves and restricting what we can feel. I felt the movie was trying to send a message about what is and what isn’t truly enjoyable in life. That was until at the very end of the movie, throwing a curve ball, when Kaguya changes her disposition towards the woes of her life, as if she was supposed to be greatful towards them. It is because of that ending is why I can not figure out exactly what the theme of the movie was.

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