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The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)

The Tale of Princess KaguyaA review by Nalini Haynes

Director: Isao Takahata
Writers: Isao Takahata(story & screenplay), Riko Sakaguchi (screenplay), Mike Jones (English version screenplay)
Stars: Aki Asakura, Yukiji Asaoka
Running time: 137 minutes
Rating: ★★★★☆  4/5 stars

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a 10th century Japanese folktale, formerly known as the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Retold in Isao Takahata’s inimitable fashion, the drawing style for Princess Kaguya is somewhere between My neighbors the Yamadas and  Graveyard of the Fireflies. Takahata reminds viewers of traditional Japanese customs and skills, everything from bowl carving to court life. Interestingly, Takahata harks back to times of yore without idealizing the past.

Okina, a bamboo cutter, sees a glowing bamboo stalk; he finds a miniature person within. Upon lifting her out of the stalk, the little person turns into a human baby. Okina takes her home to his wife, Ona. They call the baby ‘Princess’ and decide to keep her.

On the way to find a wetnurse, Ona finds milk in her breasts so begins breastfeeding immediately, while standing on a bridge and then walking home. My eyes and mind boggled but I guess it’s not impossible, it’s just not Western culture to feed a baby while walking. The breastfeeding scenes reveal nipple and all, showing breastfeeding as a purely natural maternal response. I’ve never seen the like on screen before; special kudos to Takahata!

Princess grows up magically quickly, suddenly gaining weight while in her parents arms and ageing while playing with village children. One idyllic summer and Princess has almost reached her teens.

During this summer, viewers are treated to depictions of village life. Children foraging for food, workers cutting bamboo, carving bowls and setting off to market with their produce.

Okina cuts bamboo, sometimes finding gold or fine fabrics. Instead of seeing this as a means to improve their lives in the village, Okina determines to set Princess up at court. He arranges a mansion in the city and a tutor for Princess, only telling her when they’re about to set out for court.

Once established in the mansion, Princess wants to play, frustrating her teacher immensely. Princess undergoes the court ritual of naming, thus acquiring the name ‘Kaguya’.

[Spoiler alert and trigger warning]

Eventually Princess gives up happiness to be a good daughter. She balks at an arranged marriage, however, putting her would-be suitors off. Kaguya’s elusiveness inspires the Emperor’s notice. The Emperor invades Kaguya’s privacy to forcibly hold her in a ‘chaste’ cuddle. This appeared to symbolize rape while toning down the visual and emotional impact so a younger audience can enjoy the movie.

Kaguya is devastated by the Emperor forcing himself upon her. Consequences ensue.

[Spoiler ends]

Early in The Tale of Princess Kaguya, it appears Takahata is idealizing Japan’s traditions but, by the end, these traditions are explored with a surprising realism, revealing the good and the bad. I was surprised by the complexity of characters and plot, concealed within a deceptively simple story. The artwork is a blend of traditional Japanese art, children’s picture book art and a more sophisticated animated style.

With a rather a long run-time coupled with a deceptively simple story, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is not for everyone. From the sounds in the cinema, at least 2 reviewers fell asleep. Although one of them quietened down, he appeared to struggle to wake during the credits. However, I enjoyed this exploration of culture and folk-lore, which is a refreshing change from Disney Princess movies.

I’m giving this movie ★★★★☆  4/5 stars

Note: the subtitles were white with a thin black border. Sitting in about the 3rd row, I found the subtitles difficult but not impossible to read with pale scenes as background. I’m vision impaired so, unless your eyesight is really appalling, you shouldn’t have any problems reading them. An English audio version will be shown after the upcoming Studio Ghibli festival at Cinema Nova.

“The happiness you wished for me was hard to bear.”

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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