The Tale of Princess Kaguya Review

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Having grown up with Disney all my childhood, can I just say that I am both happy and depressed to see a fairytale that keeps its sad ending in tact, whether or not it bums out the kiddies? I love Disney, as always, but it’s still pretty refreshing.

Yes, spoilers (kind of): the story is very sad. It’s beautiful, and beautifully animated, but if you plan to watch it, it might be best to keep that in mind going in. Fairytales used to go plenty dark in the name of teaching lessons, but this one isn’t so much dark as tragic.

I’ve loved Studio Ghibli before I even knew what it was. Kiki’s Delivery Service was the first film of theirs that I watched and I was spellbound. Pun intended.

Ghibli Parade! by Tenaga
Ghibli Parade! by Tenaga

 

When I was about 15 or 16, I began watching the rest of the studio’s fare, mostly paying attention to the work of Hayao Miyazaki. Isao Takahata (Studio Ghibli’s cofounder, Miyazaki’s fellow director and frequent collaborator) has done some interesting work, but I think it would be fair to say that his has been mostly eclipsed by Miyazaki’s in the mind’s of the western audiences. I don’t remember any movie of his opening with an introduction by John Lasseter; although, to be fair, even those have diminished in general in the later years of the studio’s stateside releases.

Miyzaki (left), Takahata (right)
Miyzaki (left), Takahata (right)

 

Takahata’s stories tend to be “smaller”; they are more likely to be slice of life tales or small-scale dramas, and their settings, set pieces, and morals speak heavily to their Japanese audience. While stories like Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away have Japanese settings, much of Miyazaki’s work draws influence from European themes; clothing, architecture, and mannerisms. Miyazaki’s characters also frequently end up saving the world, and while some exhibit distinctly Japanese mindsets or ideals, it’s a lot less transparent or potentially distracting. More universal, you might say.

And I’m not saying that westerners can’t handle anything Japanese. I’m saying that we tend to be firmly wedged into our comfort zones, if not outright lazy at times. Spirited Away is in part so critically acclaimed over here in the U.S. because it’s “out there,” but also just familiar enough. Alice in Wonderland with some different twists and a unique, cultural flavor to it.

Or let me put it another way. Think of watching the Oscars: you see several interesting entries in the Foreign Language Film, Documentary, or Short Film sections, but in the end, you never bother to actually watch them. Even the ones that win.

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Grave of the Fireflies, perhaps Takahata’s best known and certainly soberest film, is about a brother and sister struggling to survive at the tail end of World War II, when incendiary bombs destroy their home and fatally burn their mother. A lot of the story deals with themes of isolation, misunderstandings and distrust between the old and the young, and the fleeting nature of both life and even prosperity. While westerners can appreciate those in their own way, the setting of the film and the time it was released in theaters speak to a particular social disconnect that was happening in Japan; when the new generations were growing up in a bubble economy and couldn’t possibly relate to the struggles of their elders.

Interesting?

Definitely.

Relevant outside of Japan?

…Well, yes and no.

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On the one hand, it’s a unique situation to a specific group of people, and is part of a specific cultural heritage, but at the same time you can argue that it is something an untold number of people have experienced across the world. But to the young and unworldly, particularly in my country, it might seem too far removed for many of them to truly understand and empathize with. And because it’s based in a sad, negative period of history (like Schindler’s List), people may shy away from a casual viewing, if only because they don’t want to be made that sad.

And is it presumptuous to think we can even remotely relate to a situation like this?

Perhaps we can answer this in a future review, but on to the review at hand…

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is based on one of the oldest Japanese fairytales, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. A child appears in a bamboo stalk , and through a series of events that are interpreted and acted upon by the characters, she is taken from the country to the capital to be raised as a princess.

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For all you folks with qualms with how hollow, powerless, or meaningless Disney princess-hood might be, show your kids this. It is glamorous to the outside-looking-in only.

But unlike Grave of the Fireflies, it’s not a sad, somber story throughout.

I won’t spoil too much more here, but Princess Kaguya herself is from somewhere out of this world, and the connection she grows to a home that is not truly her own is beautiful to watch, and equally sad when all of her joy and humanity is suppressed by life in nobility.  While it is very much a Japanese story, just by the virtue of it being a fairytale, The Tale of Princess Kaguya has morals and situations that are moral readily understandable and relatable.

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Have you ever felt out-of-place? Longing for the past, when things were simpler? Did you ever feel restricted, forced into a role you never wanted for yourself, but perhaps still wanted to live up to it, if only to please someone else? Do you feel that it is better to have loved, lost, and remembered those experiences than to have never had them at all?

Can being famous and beautiful be just as much of a curse as a blessing?

If the answer to any of the above is yes, you’ll probably connect to this story, even if you are simultaneously laughing at the funny hats or cringing at the heat-stroke-inducing number of robes the characters wear. And that’s not even scratching the surface of everything that the movie wants to convey.

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As with many Ghibli films, there is a loud emphasis on the importance of nature and celebrating, if not returning to, your roots. The story comes full circle, so to speak, several times, constantly reminding us that that is what the earth does every year, rotating from spring all the way to winter and back again.

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The art has a very sketch-like, yet still flowing look to it, as though pages of a children’s book come to life on the screen. The music was composed by Joe Hisaishi, and is gorgeous as ever. He frequently scores Miyazaki’s films, but this was the first time Takahata and Hisaishi worked together. My favorite piece is “Cicada Night,” but I love just about anything played on the koto.

Lady Sagami on the right
Lady Sagami on the right
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Sutemaru on the right

 

The voice acting in the English dub (vocal translation) is passable. The biggest names are probably Darren Criss (of Glee and Starkid Potter fame) as Sutemaru, Lucy Liu as Lady Sagami, and Oliver Platt as Lord Abe, and they are all pretty perfectly suited to their characters. The bamboo cutter has a fun timbre that really accentuates what we would hear of a simple country man, without being too overt or stereotypical (like when characters from Osaka are given heavy Southern or Brooklyn accents in their English dubs).

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The bamboo cutter’s wife is nice enough; she has a soft and calm voice at all times, giving her an air of wisdom and motherhood. The voice that sticks out the most is probably Great Councilor Otomo’s, played by Daniel Dae Kim, which is funny to say because he is one of the few Asian voice actors in the dub. But it really does, because he sounds like he’s laying it on thick to convey age and dignity.

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Otomo on the second from the right, Lord Abe in the middle.

 

I’m not trying to be mean, but for the short time that he’s on-screen, it’s a bit odd. In a similar and yet opposite way that reminds me of another film. Because while yes, most of the accents in the film Amadeus are British (probably an audible shorthand to convey nobility) and not Austrian, despite the story not taking place anywhere in England, that is not nearly as distracting as the one woman playing Mozart’s wife with the whiny American accent. No one in the film has an overly Asian accent except one guy, and everyone else sounds pretty generic American.

Princess Kaguya herself is a bit of a mixed bag. Her adult voice, provided by Chloe Grace Mortez, has come good emotional moments, but also some kind of wooden ones too. She may just have difficulty when transitioning to voice work; I haven’t seen any of her onscreen work, but I think her most recent film was If I Stay, which got a mixed reception. Believe it or not, not everyone can transition from actor to voice actor or vice versa and be just as good.

But as I said, it’s passable at worst.

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The Tale of Princess Kagura, like most all Ghibli films, possesses a lot of charm and heart; it’s clear how much effort went into the production, and just how personal the story is to its tellers. It’s a movie celebrating emotions, the simple pleasures of life over formality and opulence, and a cautionary tale about not following what is in your heart.

Ghibli enthusiasts will definitely love it. Of all of Takahata’s works, this is probably the most welcoming and penetrable of his stories, so I encourage newcomers to take a look as well. There is plenty of universal wonder and magic to be found, and yet so much interesting culture at the same time.

8/10

*All pictures, video clips, and other media belong to their respective owners. None of the images or sounds belong to me.

 

 

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