Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Tale of Princess Kaguya - Sublime Beyond Words

Studio Ghibli in "The Tale of Princess Kaguya" takes a new direction in both story and animation style and adapts a traditional Japanese folktale.  Disney movies have been inspired by fairy tales for generations now, adding cute animals and happy endings to what were actually often very dark stories.  "The Little Mermaid"'s title character in the original Hans Christian Andersen tale dies alone and ignored by her dashing Prince.  In the Disney version Ariel has a happy wedding under a rainbow, with a reprise of 'Part of Your World'.  Studio Ghibli does not hide from the ending of it's source material, 'The Bamboo-Cutter's Tale'.  It uses the tragedy of the ending of its source material to take a particularly Ghibli statement.

The director of "The Tale of Princess Kaguya" is Isao Takahata, one of the two great directors in the Ghibli house.  This will probably be Takahata's final film, considering he has not directed since 1999's "My Neighbor's the Yamadas".  Seventy-nine year old directors do not have many more projects left in them that take eight years to be completed, such as "Princess Kaguya".  Takahata previously directed the classic "Grave of the Fireflies", a movie about two war orphans starving to death in the ruins of Hiroshima.  The question is:  how could a movie about a magical princess from the Moon be just as depressing, if not more so?

The art style of "Kaguya-hime" is based on traditional Japanese painting, kakemono scrolls.  There is a very exact use of delicate lines, never quite covering every object they represent.  Most eyes of characters are a single brushstroke, unless they are the Princess herself, who gets fuller anime eyes.  Watercolor-esque colors are used for most of the film, besides more energetic scenes which appear to be made from more abstract black and white charcoal.  (These are the very same aims and techniques of the video game, "Okami";s art-style.)  Much like the paintings of Ghibli's inspiration, "Princess Kaguya" is deceptively simple:  there is a sophisticated use of negative space between many of the objects in landscapes, giving the film a unique look.  Much as it's artwork, "Princess Kaguya" itself is far more than it seems.  On the surface it is just a fairy tale, but it is in fact a highly complex story of growing up, the dissatisfaction of human life, and the beauty of our human suffering.

Absolutely stunning. Possibly the prettiest movie of 2014.
In an unspecified period of medieval Japan, an elderly bamboo-cutter is doing what bamboo-cutters usually do:  cutting bamboo.  He then discovers within one of the stalks a tiny princess, so small that she can fit inside his hands.  The Bamboo-cutter realizes she is a gift from heaven, and that he must raise her with his wife to become a real fully-sized human princess.  The tiny Princess then rapidly grows into a precocious young girl, who loves to play with the local country children.  Magical deposits of gold and dresses appear in the woods for the bamboo-cutter, who uses it to take his daughter to the Capital so that she may live as a noblewoman, as he feels she was destined to do.

Though the old couple loves the Princess with all of their hearts, and do everything they can for her, she remains forever unhappy.  The Princess is willful and lively, so cannot stand the styling restrictions of a noblewoman's life.  They must not be seen, they can barely talk, they must stick to decorum forever, and finally must marry a strange man, the concept of which terrifies her.   The young is beloved by all unconditionally for her beauty and grace, she even smittens the elderly who priest who gives her the name "Kaguya" at her puberty naming ritual.  Stories of her beauty circle the Capital, bringing great noblemen and even the Emperor to the Princess's door, yet she rejects them all.  Despite having everything a person of this period could ever fantasize about, the Princess can only dream back to her simple childhood, playing with her little friends in the woods.

Just an amazing amount of emotion in just one screenshot.
"The Tale of Princess Kaguya" sounds like a very weighty movie dealing with the struggles of all people and their dissatisfaction with their station.  The depression of the Princess has no obvious cause.  Isao Takahata is not the kind of director to make this a feminist rejection of women's roles in traditional Japanese culture*.  Rather it is the unpredictable yearning we all have for something else, no matter what we have.  The happiest people in the world with the greatest success still feel that painful ache that their lives could be different - a full human can never be truly 100% happy.  Even for a Ghibli movie the characterization of Kaguya is extremely subtle, and whatever crimes she has committed are nothing more than a lack of appreciation for her current life.  For that she is punished terribly.

Things are not all gloom, luckily.  For a good deal of "Princess Kaguya"'s run time, this is a very light movie, mostly showing an idyllic childhood and cute toddlers.  Through a very stylized paintbrush, Takahata still creates a classic Studio Ghibli experience.  The bamboo-cutter and his wife have large cartoony heads, and they never quite fit in with upper class society.  A simple clumsy motion like the bamboo-cutter's ridiculously tall nobleman hat getting knocked off every time he goes through a doorway is a constant humorous delight.  There is Kaguya's fat little maidservant, a little creature whose ever-closed eyes open enigmatically.  No other animation studio can show so much love for its characters than Ghibli, who can wow an audience just by portraying Baby Kaguya jumping across her room chasing after a frog.

I wish I could put up 1000 screenshots of this gorgeous movie.  Instead I must settle for merely three.
Yes, "The Tale of Princess Kaguya" is an extremely sad movie, sad beyond words.  You may weep like a small child, as a certain Dragoon blogger may have.  However, "Kaguya" is not really about loss or despair.  It is a movie about life, the good and the bad.  The film's final act involves unknowable divinities, including the Buddha himself** come down to take Princess Kaguya away from the pain of the real world back to paradise on the Moon.  The Princess, who has never been truly happy since adolescence, who has rejected every suitor, and even threatened suicide to her parents when they pushed her too hard, is devastated to be forced to leave.  She loves her human life, with all the pain and hardship within.  The character repeatedly sings a song she knows from instinct of the majesty of the living world.  Her life was a tribute to our broken human existence and our great planet.

"Princess Kaguya" feels like the Japanese answer to "Boyhood":  a movie celebrating a young person's journey through the confusion of growing up.  "Kaguya" ends a more terrible and tragic note, yet it's two and a half running time is still an indulgent feast on the highlights of a main character's life.  It is an absolutely beautiful movie in a thousand different ways.

* Many call "Grave of the Fireflies" an anti-war movie.  Takahata has insisted he had no such goal, his movies have no such didactic hammers to smash their messages into the audience's head.   If anything he is a director that shoots more for traditional roles, listening to one's elders.  That may also be the moral here in this movie, that the Princess should have just taken a husband like her parents wanted.  But even if the director honestly believes that, it feels far too simple to me.

** Who it turns out is a real prick.

1 comment:

  1. I've heard tell alot of doom and gloom brewing over the house of Totoro, but newer(ish) releases like this reminds me there's still plenty of imagination and talent left in them. Great review Blue.