The Tale of the Princess Kaguya Review

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AKA: Kaguya-hime no Monogatari, The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Genre: Fantasy/Drama
Year Released: 2013
Distributor: GKIDS/Universal
Origin: Japan
Running Time: 137 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
For Fans Of: Spirited Away, Yona of the Dawn, The Twelve Kingdoms, Princess from the Moon, Song of the Sea, Air, Mulan, Thumbelina
Notes:
-The Japanese language track was used during this review.
Fun Facts:
-Princess Kaguya is based on a 10th century folk tale known as The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.

-Hilarious in Hindsight: In the English dub, Prince Ishitsukuri is voiced by James Marsden. This wouldn’t be the first time for him playing a prince as he played Prince Edward in Enchanted.

-This is the final Studio Ghibli film to be directed by co-founder Isao Takahata and the only Ghibli film of his to be scored by Joe Hisaishi as opposed to being Hayao Miyazaki’s top composer.

-Princess Kaguya won 7 awards and was nominated for an Oscar, but it didn’t win that particular award.


Of all the anime studios that have been featured on Iridium Eye, there was one that was certainly missing. That would be none other than Studio Ghibli. For decades now, they’ve produced several movies that even non-anime fans have seen or at the very least have heard of. Spirited Away? They made that movie. Howl’s Moving Castle? They did that, too. Princess Mononoke? Yup, Ghibli’s hands were all over that. I won’t be focusing on those mega-popular films, but I thought I felt obligated to review one of their more recent offerings after receiving a DVD as a Secret Santa present from one of my co-workers to which I’m quite thankful for.

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya takes place in feudal Japan centuries ago. A bamboo cutter who’s name is Sanuki no Miyatsuko was busy doing his job until he discovers a glowing bamboo shoot. Inside of the plant was a tiny princess. He brings her inside and him and his wife decide to raise this heavenly figure. She then grows into being a real human baby and aging rapidly. This girl grows up around this rural village where she plays with the other children while going under the nickname “Lil’ Bamboo” (or Takenoko depending on which version you watch). On one fateful day, Miyatsuko finds another bamboo shoot that contains several gold pieces inside. Feeling ambitious from these recent wishes, Miyatsuko forces the rest of his family to move to the capital where they become self-made royals (Miyatsuko gets the title of Squire, by the way) in order to fufill this divine promise for their adopted daughter to finally become a princess. They become rich living in the capital city and Lil’ Bamboo is rechristened as Princess Kaguya. She wants to play and have fun, but is forbidden to by some of the family’s entourage such as Lady Sagami wanting her to be the perfect lady attending her studies, acting proper, and looking beautiful at all times. Kaguya misses life back at the village, but fate forces her to stay in the kingdom as she finds that being a princess isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be for better or for (much) worse.

If anyone is used to Studio Ghibli’s other works, then The Tale of The Princess Kaguya will throw you a huge curve ball with it’s animation style. Don’t misconstrue me, the animation quality is certainly high-caliber, but it has a completely different style compared to their more popular works. Princess Kaguya looks like a living Japanese painting from centuries ago, uses watercolors as a major foundation, and the scenery is much more sparse. The closest thing that it reminds me of is Ernest and Celestine if it was created in Japan instead of France. The animation is simply wonderful, but I thought it was brave of Ghibli to do something completely different. The minimalist watercolor foundation works extremely well here. To be brutally honest with Ghibli, their movies can be quite gaudy in the animation department despite being impressive. How can I put this if one is a Ghibli fan who hasn’t seen this film? It’s like going to a gourmet ice cream shop that’s presenting a new flavor. You’re used to their usual assortment and you give this new flavor a try, but you really like it. Certainly a different taste and texture, but it’s of the same quality as their more established types. I never expected to use ice cream metaphors for a review, but that’s how I see this animated feature in comparison and contrast to the other films in Ghibli’s canon.

It certainly wouldn’t be a Ghibli film without great characters and it certainly delivers here. Kaguya is a princess that is someone that I can root for. I like how she’s not into the archetypal princess things and would rather go barefoot or garden some things instead of just sitting still and looking pretty much like that Daya song. I also enjoyed how smart she was and is able to stand up for herself especially when dealing with these high-class suitors who only see her as treasure and not a human being. She also has a good sense of humor like when she un-blackens her teeth (context: black teeth used to be a huge beauty symbol in ancient Japan. I’ve learned that in Japanese class and I’ve seen Throne of Blood.) before flashing a huge grin to freak out her maidservant. That was awesome when she did that. I also liked how she wasn’t some perfect Mary Sue or someone who just sings while doing nothing like many a Disney princess. Major props to her. There’s also special mention to her childhood friend Sutemaru. He’s definitely a big brother figure who ends up leaving the village after she does after a huge famine strikes the farmlands. Sutemaru wants what’s best for her and protects her while he can. Miyatsuko had some interesting character development as he starts as a very doting father before becoming more selfish in subtle ways as he ascends the social ladder. He also claims to be doing everything for her while he lives vicariously through his adopted daughter which the former bamboo cutter is called out on. The rest of the cast was quite interesting as many of them feel like real people instead of just characters.

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya has a wonderful soundtrack. Come on, Joe Hisaishi was behind the conductor’s stand on this one, so you know it’s going to be good. While I never considered myself a Ghibli fan (I know it sounds blasphemous to all the otaku out there), I certainly had nothing against Hisaishi’s work. He’s a very talented composer. I enjoyed the usage of traditional Japanese instruments with the koto being featured prominently and not just because the title character plays one. I also enjoyed the motif used during the Moon People parade scene in the finale. The happy and joyous tone has a perfect amount of synergy and dissonance with the situation in the ending which makes it heartbreaking to listen to. Very top notch stuff from Mr. Hisaishi.

While this offering from Isao Takahata was another notch in his belt, I disagree with everything being stone perfect let alone getting a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes (don’t get me started on that site). There was an obvious plot hole when it came to Kaguya coming down to earth while being adopted. Why is it that her adopted parents didn’t name her right away when Miyatsuko brought her home? She doesn’t get the Lil’ Bamboo name until after she meets the other kids who give her that name after hearing her story of coming from a bamboo shoot. If I was a parent (adoptive or not), I’d name that child right away. I also thought the film really dragged in places as they tried to fill space in it’s over two-hour run time. Some parts did feel a bit boring and dry. Also, the revelation of Kaguya’s origins came out of nowhere to anyone not familiar with the original story and they should’ve foreshadowed some of those aspects more. Yes, one can tell that’s she’s not from earth, but I thought the timing of that subplot was a bit wonky.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was a delightful gift and I certainly enjoyed this movie. The Japanese artwork-style animation was certainly breath-taking and I’m glad Studio Ghibli took a lot of chances in experimenting with a different visual method than their previous films. The music was quite exquisite and it should be considered one of Joe Hisaishi’s highlights. The story itself did suffer from some timing issues, but it was certainly well-constructed. If you want a heartwarming tale, then look no further than this atypical princess story. It may not be Isao Takahata’s best work, but The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is still highly recommended.


Adjustable Point System:
Add 1 point if you’re a Studio Ghibli fan.
Subtract 1-2 points if you want your princess stories to be more musical.

Pros:
-Immensely creative animation styles
-Great character development
-Excellent soundtrack

Cons:
-Some obvious plot holes
-Pacing issues with Kaguya’s origins
-Meanders at times with it’s long running time

Final Score: 9/10 points

Content Warning: Princess Kaguya was rated PG which I mostly agree with, but there are some things to watch out for if you have a family. There’s some partial nudity including a couple of scenes that involve breastfeeding. There’s some violence that includes some blood and a couple of characters die. Kaguya threatens to kill herself in one scene to spite her father which is quite disturbing. While not quite as graphic as Princess Mononoke, there are some reservations in watching this if you have smaller children.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.

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