I have to say that I’m glad to be writing this piece because I had wanted to shed a little more light on folk and fairy tale adaptations that were outside the usual big name Hollywood system for a while. I had managed to do it once already with my review of Song of the Sea. Now, I can do it again because I’ve finally had the time to get my hands on and watch TheTale of the Princess Kaguya.
For those not in the know, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is one of the latest releases from acclaimed Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli.
Their past works include movies like Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky, Whisper of the Heart, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ponyo, My Neighbor Totoro and more. This specific movie is directed by Isao Takahata and based on a Japanese folk tale usually entitled “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”.
This may be something of an unusual review/spotlight because I actually only read the story the movie was based on the day before I watched it. Click the link right HERE to read the version I read.
The story starts off with a poor old bamboo cutter. He goes into the bamboo grove to do his work and encounters an unusual sight. A glowing bamboo shoot sprouts out of the ground right before his eyes. Inside, he finds a tiny little woman who looks like a doll. He brings her home to his wife. The little doll-girl quickly transforms into a little baby causing the old couple to decide that this girl wants them to raise her. The bamboo cutter and his wife call the girl Princess but because she grows very quickly like a bamboo stalk, the local kids nickname her Little Bamboo. Little Bamboo is happy living like a country girl. However, after magically receiving expensive gifts of gold and silk from out of the bamboo grove, her father decides that it’s a sign that he should raise her like a proper noble princess in a big house in the capital. Little Bamboo goes along with her father’s wishes. Pretty soon she has a new name, a noble tutor, lots of beautiful robes and high class suitors. However, the question is whether she’s really happy with all this.
In general, it’s hard to go wrong with Studio Ghibli films. There’s always something special about them. This one seems no different. From the story to the animation to the art style, it’s another in a line of fantastic animated films. The art style is definitely something I should mention. The art has a style that makes everything look like it’s drawn in sketchy lines and colored in watercolors. This gives the movie a feeling similar to looking at traditional Japanese paintings or the illustrations of a high end picture book. It goes a long way to evoking the folk tale vibe of the story. The English-language cast does a superb job acting out the story. Personally, what I love about other Studio Ghibli films is something that’s very present in this movie as well. It’s the little things and quiet moments. Studio Ghibli has a way of making even scenes of everyday life and the regular Japanese countryside seem to have a magic all their own. As opulent as the mansions of the palace are, the scenes of the bamboo groves and woods near the bamboo cutter’s tiny house seem to have a different kind of wonder that you can’t quite put your finger on.
From a folk tale perspective, I think the movie is interesting. In Japanese folklore there are many stories about older couple raising strange and otherworldly children. Stories like “Momotaro”, “Issun-Boshi” and “Strong Tarou” are obvious examples. However, when reading many of these stories, the child in question often seems kind of otherworldly and distant or like destined heroes just waiting for the right moment. These especially seemed to be the case when I read “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. The talk of the bamboo princess’s grace and beauty made her seem more like an angel brought down to Earth. It was like she didn’t quite belong. However, Studio Ghibli’s Princess Kaguya is human in all the ways that count. She has a full range of emotions and when she’s cast into the role of princess you can see her enjoying it at some moments and longing to be back in the country the next. This movie managed to humanize a character who could have been just a little too divine. On the cultural side of things, it’s nice to see a “princess” movie that breaks from the Disney Hollywood formula we’re used to. In Disney films, princesses are usually longing for something the minute they appear on screen. In older movies, they long for true love. In newer films, they long for some nondescript sense of fulfillment they don’t have. In Princess Kaguya’s case, she’s happy at the very beginning in the countryside. Then she’s brought to the capital by her father and things get complicated. Part of her likes the trappings of her new life, part of her is just interested in going along with it to please her father and another just wants to go back home and pal around with all her old friends. This princess wouldn’t quite be sure what to long for.
I would highly recommend this movie. How highly? Well, it inspired me to immediately download a new book of Japanese fairy tales to my kindle so I could read more stories of a similar type. Then, when I had to return the copy I watched to the library, I went out immediately and buy my own copy.
Seriously, give this one a watch. You’ll be really glad you did.
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