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Reviewing the movies of 2014, Part VII: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
The Tale of the Ghibli Co-founder, Isao Takahata
As those of you who have read my other hubs pertaining to 2014's movie releases will no doubt be aware, I have been most eagerly awaiting an opportunity to see the latest film from Hayao Miyazaki's long-time colleague and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata. Also, if you've read any of my anime-related hubs, you may be able to guess why. For one, Takahata, Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki gave the world, in Ghibli, one of the finest animation studios ever created. Each and every film they release is an event, even if it's a relatively minor one (like Gedo Senki [Tales from Earthsea]). Also, this film WAS intended to be part of an event. For the first time since 1988's simultaneous release of Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro) by Miyazaki and Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies) by Takahata, the two maestros attempted to have another simultaneous release, this time for their respective swan songs. Unfortunately, the perfectionist Takahata fell behind schedule, and Miyazaki's Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises) was released four months before Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya). This was further muddled by the American release, which had The Wind Rises bow in limited release in December of 2013 before opening wide the following February, while Kaguya debuted almost a year later and went almost straight to video (it comes out next week--I can hardly wait!). Anyway, the other reason why it should be clear that this was a movie to see is that it is by Isao Freakin' Takahata, the man who helmed one really good movie (Houhokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun [My Neighbors the Yamadas]), one pretty excellent movie that I really loved (Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko [Pom Poko]), one of the greatest animated films ever released (Omohide Poro Poro [Only Yesterday]), and, last but definitely not least, THE greatest animated film ever released, the before-mentioned Grave of the Fireflies. He also directed a sizeable chunk of the original Lupin the 3rd TV series, and a few other pre-Ghibli projects, and has worked in various other capacities on a number of projects in or out of Ghibli. In short, the man has more than earned some recognition, and the fact that he FINALLY has a shot at Oscar has me excited more than just about anything else this season. I won't go out on a limb and say his win is guaranteed; though both How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Big Hero 6 were shockingly quiet in this country upon release, they still have higher visibility to the average movie-goer (and likely to the average Academy voter) than Kaguya, and they're both damn good movies. Still, Kaguya ought to win, if only to validate a phenomenal body of work. Anyway, enough praise for the man, let's have a look at the film itself, shall we?
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (literally, "The Tale of Princess Kaguya") is an adaptation of one of Japan's oldest and most famous tales, "The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter," and everything about the film evokes a sense of old-school storytelling and art, from its deceptively simple-looking, hand-drawn animation painted in water-color hues, to its epic scope, to its traditional subject matter and setting. Much has been made about the art of this film, and I must admit I was a bit skeptical going in--still frames are not as flattering to this style as the actual moving animation, and the one segment I had repeatedly seen animated is one in which the art is intentionally rough and unfinished, in order to match the mood of the protagonist at that moment. Having seen the whole film, I have to admit that, yes, this is a freakin' gorgeous movie. The animation may appear rough and simplistic, but it perfectly evokes traditional Japanese art, and there are moments of modest complexity; overall, the art is seldom as simplistic as it was in Yamadas, and occasionally even recalls the art of Only Yesterday. Also, the lovely score by Joe Hisaishi beautifully complements the images onscreen, and strikes me as some of his finer work. The story is well-paced, and though the entire film has a languid, thoughtful flow, I had no problem really getting into the the story until it starts getting a bit odd at the end. There is even some humor throughout, though one of the parts that inspired some pretty big chuckles will immediately make you kick yourself when you realize what happened had tragic consequences. The end will not be to all tastes, but I strongly suspect that this is a film that will improve on repeat viewings, as one can more fully unpack all the themes contained in the narrative.
Concerning that narrative, the basic story is as follows: a bamboo-cutter finds a glowing stalk of bamboo, and next to it a shoot rapidly rises up to unveil a beautiful young maiden, about six inches tall. The bamboo-cutter scoops her up and takes her home to his wife, whereupon she suddenly becomes a normal-sized baby. She grows up in leaps and bounds, earning her the nickname "Takenoko" ("Little Bamboo"); she is close friends with the local children, and she and her adopted mother are both incredibly happy for a short while. However, her adopted father wants more for her, and when he finds two more glowing stalks of bamboo, one full of gold and one full of nice kimonos, he believes it to be a sign from heaven that his little "Princess" truly is a princess, and he moves them all to town and begins the girl's training as a Princess. Soon, she is ready to come of age, and a naming ceremony is held, wherein she becomes "Kaguya." Eventually, word of her beauty spreads far and wide; her unusual demeanor also earns her a reputation for being picky and demanding, which only strengthens the resolve of her would-be suitors. Eventually, however, her true past is revealed, and let's just say that those who expect Isao Takahata's movies to end on a less than chipper note will not be disappointed. Kaguya had been given a chance to experience true living, and allowed it to be cut short long before it needed to be; in a sense, this film is even more melancholy than Grave of the Fireflies, and some will likely find it depressing. That said, like all Takahata's films there is a thoughtful beauty to the way this story is presented, and I personally find it far more reflective and bittersweet than anything else. Do NOT watch this film if you are looking for lighthearted entertainment; however, if you have time to follow it up with one of the other 2014 animated releases up for Oscar (not counting Song of the Sea, which I cannot yet comment on), particularly The Boxtrolls or The Lego Movie, I would dare to say that you'd have a pretty awesome movie night on your hands. The film is worth checking out, regardless--like his colleague Miyazaki, and a mere handful of other directors (Robert Altman's CRIMINALLY underrated A Prairie Home Companion comes to mind), Isao Takahata managed to craft one HELL of a swan song.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya 9/10 Oscar-worthy for Best Picture, Animated Feature, Director (Isao Takahata), Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, Film Editing, Score (Joe Hisaishi), Sound Mixing and Soung Effects Editing; arguably so for Cinematography. Nominated for Best Animated Feature. An argument for Best Use of Music in Film. Could be an argument for Vocal Acting, but as I saw the Japanese dub I cannot really comment on the English cast yet. The Japanese cast does a great job, though, including Aki Asakura as Kaguya.
Will Purchase? Hells yeah! In fact, due in part to the film's release on blu-ray right before my birthday, I WILL get it this month.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a fine film, and well worth watching. As noted, it is coming out on blu-ray right before my birthday, and I have made quite clear I hope to receive it as a gift; if I had the budget I would have pre-ordered the film myself. It should also be quite clear by now that I fully desire this film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature; the competition is solid, but if there is any justice at all in this world at least ONE of Ghibli's co-founders will get to go out with an Oscar! Just sayin'. Anyway, as always I thank you for reading, and wish you happy viewing!