The Tale of Princess Kaguya
2014, PG, 137 min. Directed by Isao Takahata. Voices by Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Darren Criss, Lucy Liu, George Segal, James Marsden, Beau Bridges, Oliver Platt, John Cho, Dean Cain.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 31, 2014
Stunningly beautiful, the latest animated film from Japan’s Studio Ghibli is a real work of art. The hand-drawn film by Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbors the Yamadas), the legendary studio’s co-founder with Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), is based on a well-known 10th century Japanese folk story, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” This folk tale about a magical child has even been cited by some scholars as an early and elegant work of science fiction. However, it’s also possible to bypass all this baggage and just approach The Tale of Princess Kaguya as the gorgeous and expressive film that it is.
Using minimal lines and a visual style and coloring modeled after Japanese watercolors, the film reaches its greatest glory when capturing motion. The motions appear lifelike and emotionally charged, and the pastels present a stark contrast to the harder look we associate with the majority of modern anime. Almost any frame of the movie can be excised and placed on a wall for continual viewing pleasure: It’s that lovely.
The story opens as an aging bamboo cutter discovers a miniature princess in a glowing bamboo stalk and, cupping the strange creature in his hands, brings her home to his wife, whereupon the tiny figure morphs into a human baby they call Kaguya. From there, the infant grows in rapid, unearthly spurts, while playing with her friends (who call her “L’il Bamboo”) and remaining the apple of her adopted parents’ eyes. When the bamboo cutter later finds gold coins and exquisite cloths in the base of another bamboo shoot, it’s little wonder that he takes it as a sign he should move the family to the city and raise little Kaguya as a princess. At first resistant, the spritely young woman eventually kowtows to her lessons in restrictive womanhood, and multiple suitors come courting. Eventually, Kaguya discovers what she was meant to do with her life, even though it takes her away from the people she loves.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is screening in a kid-friendly dubbed version during the daytime and the subtitled original in the evenings. Although I’ve only seen the subtitled version, I can recommend the film’s suitability for young viewers, but do note that its themes and uncompromising ending render it a hard PG. It’s a little too complex for the littler tots, and even the older ones might get a bit squirmy due to the two-hour-plus run time, but girls, especially, should be receptive to the story’s fairy-tale qualities in which a child grows to young womanhood while discovering the reasons why she rejects all her suitors and has always had a nagging sense of not belonging to her surroundings. Princess Kaguya belongs in the film-princess pantheon.