Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Isao Takahata's The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a thematically rich and artistically beautiful film.  As it may be the director's final feature and the last feature to come from Studio Ghibli,  the studio exits on a high note.  This film and Miyazaki's The Wind Rises are both landmark films that challenge accepted notions of what an animated film should be.  Only time will tell if they serve as inspiration for other artists or remain outliers.

It is impossible to talk about Princess Kaguya without discussing key story points below.

A poor bamboo cutter discovers a child within a tree.  She grows unnaturally fast.  The bamboo cutter later discovers gold and fine fabrics in a similar manner and takes it to mean that heaven wishes the girl to be brought up as a princess.  His wife is obedient to his wishes, but more sensitive to the child than he is.

The child revels in living in the woods, playing with other poor children and being surrounded by nature.  However, her father and mother move her to the capital, where she may no longer act as she likes but must conform to society's expectations for a young woman of nobility.  She respects the wishes of her parents, but as she gets increasingly immersed in the society's ways, she becomes more unhappy.  She is desired by high status suitors, including the king.  She is able, by her wits and some magic to elude marriage.  She seeks to escape back to her childhood environment, but the world has moved on and she realizes that her chance for happiness is over.  She is called back to heaven against her will, regretting missed opportunities and sad at what she must leave behind.  Her father finally realizes his mistake as he loses her.

The central question of the film is what constitutes happiness.  For the bamboo cutter, it is being able to give his child what society says are advantages.  For her suitors, it is taking a special wife to add to their status.  For the princess, it is obeying her parents.  All of them are wrong.

The bamboo cutter learns that the advantages he has showered on the princess have gone against her  nature.  The suitors are unable to keep their pledges to the princess in order to win her hand.  Two face embarrassment, one the loss of wealth, one the loss of his illusions, and two have their lives endangered, all for a woman whose face they have never seen.  The princess learns that the natural world is superior to life in the capital and that acting according to her own wishes is more satisfying than obedience to her parents, especially when the result is to reduce her to a mere ornament. 

All of these characters are burdened with regrets due to poor choices and paths not taken.  When heaven comes to reclaim the princess, a clear metaphor for death, there is much pain for the characters who can no longer avoid acknowledging their mistakes.

Social class is a great divider in this film.  When the princess and her mother spend time in the mansion kitchen and garden as an escape from the rigid behaviour expected of them, the father cannot understand why.  When the princess journeys to the countryside to see the cherry blossoms, a young child, as excited by the sight as she is, bumps into her.  Instead of them being able to share their happiness, the child is snatched away by its mother, who prostrates herself in front of the princess and begs forgiveness.  Sharing joy is forbidden across class lines.  When one of the princess's childhood friends is caught stealing a chicken, he is brutally beaten, but when one of her suitors fails to pay some artisans, he escapes without punishment.

The characters in this film don't understand where happiness lies.  Society has created divisions and rules that stifle people while claiming to exalt them.  Nature is more beautiful than anything people have created, yet people choose to leave nature behind.  People are blind to each others' needs.  Awareness comes only in retrospect, when it is too late to correct poor choices.  In short, the characters are fully human, doing what they think is best but unable to see their mistakes.

The artwork, especially for the scenes in the countryside, is exquisite.  The animation varies somewhat; early scenes with the bamboo cutter and the children seem to be the strongest overall, but Takahata's direction is capable of getting dramatic impact from minimal movement in some later scenes.  The softness of the linework and the watercolour backgrounds are refreshing after so many years of computer animation.  The hands of the artists are visible everywhere, not just in the pre-production artwork.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya, like The Wind Rises, is more dramatically sophisticated than animated films made for North America.  The willingness to embrace characters who are flawed and to acknowledge the existence of tragedy separates these films from the feelgood fantasies churned out by Hollywood.  The term "family film" really means "we won't do anything to upset your children."  By limiting itself to this genre, North American feature animation has neutered itself, spending fortunes to divert audiences from real life instead of helping to illuminate it.

I am deeply grateful for Studio Ghibli's existence.  While the level of craft in their films doesn't always conform to what North American audiences expect, the intelligence in them surpasses anything animated that Hollywood offers.  Ghibli's films, in particular The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, set a standard that Hollywood will most likely ignore.  But if feature animation has a future beyond amusing parents while babysitting their children, it doesn't have to look any further than what Miyazaki and Takahata have accomplished.


Carla Veldman said...

Mark,you hit the nail on the head in the second-last paragraph. I think children are capable of handling a lot more than what's assumed in terms of thematically heavy films. Films of yore (thinking of Bambi and Dumbo) dealt with the loss of a parent - these days the worst that can happen is losing all your friends for about 10 minutes before the climax.

I'm looking forward to seeing The Princess Kaguya, thanks for the review!

Anonymous said...

I think you are totally correct in saying that Studio Ghibli demonstrated a different way of telling stories, I remember when I first saw "Laputa" many years ago and was delighted by the fresh approach they took. However, for me, I think that their output became decidedly sub-par since "Howl's Moving Castle". It was appalling that Goro Miyazaki got a directing job on "Tales of Earthsea" with absolutely no animation experience to speak of and the lacklustre "Up on Poppy Hill" only confirms his lack of directorial ability. "Ponyo" was a pale shadow of "My Neighbor Totoro" a film that remains uttery charming for any age without the apologists lament that "you have to see it throught he eyes of a child" and there has been nothing as fresh as "kiki's Delivery Service" or as touching and delightful as "Porco Rosso" and "Spirited Away". Even "Howl" was weighed down by a garbled storyline and a rushed denouement but it had flashes of delight within it that made it worth watching, something that I don't think can be said for anything that Ghibli have produced since.

Anonymous said...

I saw the dubbed version of this in New York a couple of weeks ago. I think it's probably one of the greatest human works of art, of any kind, that's been done in the past century.

It's a simple little bowl that contains universes. I tried to review it for and forgot to even mention how the film encompasses class, gender, war and parenting.

I saw Song of the Sea yesterday. It's beautiful, and I have a little easier time imagine bringing a small child to that than to Kaguya. But I think Song of the Sea is just a nice film made by people, whereas Kaguya feels like something that the gods gave to Studio Ghibli the way the gods gave Kaguya to the bamboo cutter.