Studio Ghibli released a second movie in 2013, this time directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s longtime associate and the studio’s co-founder, Isao Takahata. The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is based on “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” an ancient Japanese fairy tale about a girl found in a bamboo stalk. Takahata had previously briefly paid homage to this story in My Neighbors the Yamadas; in a short sequence, Nonoko is similarly found in a bamboo stalk by her father. The Tale of The Princess Kaguya would be Takahata’s final film before his passing in April 2018. Let’s take a look.
One day, a lowly bamboo cutter (James Caan) finds a beautiful, tiny princess (Chloë Grace Moretz) inside a stalk of bamboo. Enchanted with the miniscule child, he takes her home to his wife (Mary Steenburgen), and they decide to raise the baby as their daughter. The Princess grows preternaturally fast into a beautiful young lady. One day, the bamboo cutter finds gifts of fine cloth and gold inside a bamboo shoot, taking it as a sign that his little Princess should be raised like an actual princess. However, fancy clothes and a luxurious life in the big city may not make the Princess as happy as her father thinks.
The first thing that struck me about The Tale of The Princess Kaguya was its unique look and tone. This film employs a minimalist style not entirely dissimilar from that in My Neighbors the Yamadas. However, I like the look of this movie much more. The character designs are just as exaggerated, but generally, I find them more pleasant. I enjoyed My Neighbors the Yamadas overall, but it was a frenetic series of vignettes, whereas Kaguya seems to employ similar artistic choices to wildly different ends. The Tale of The Princess Kaguya has no qualms about its fairytale world and fantasy logic. This film takes its time to build atmosphere and character relationships and quickly becomes an engrossing experience. The sketchy watercolor look of this film’s animation is truly unique and evocative despite sharing qualities with Isao Takahata’s prior work. This film is chock full of visually striking shots and sequences that could proudly hang on the walls of a museum. Perpetual Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi brings his A-game to Princess Kaguya; this naturalist, light score pairs perfectly with the visuals to create a rich but unimposing atmosphere. The music is uplifting as Kaguya befriends the village children, and Sutemaru in particular, but swells with emotion as the tragic climax nears. I’m beginning to find it difficult to discuss Hisaishi’s underscores for the Ghibli movies because they’re always so good. They become integral to the feel of the films and inextricable from the experience they offer. How do you evaluate someone who always does their job perfectly no matter what is being asked of them? Is this guy superhuman?
The English cast of The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is superb as well, although I haven’t had a chance to watch the subbed version, which I’ll have to do some time. Chloë Grace Moretz brings sensitivity and humanity to the title role, with James Caan and Mary Steenburgen shining as her adoptive parents. Interestingly, Caan and Steenburgen also played a married couple in Elf. Darren Criss is serviceable as Sutemaru; I loved Criss in American Crime Story, and he does his job here. There isn’t a whole lot to Sutemaru outside of his relationship with the Princess. John Cho, Beau Bridges, Daniel Dae Kim, Oliver Platt, and James Marsden are funny as the Princess’ rejected suitors. Lucy Liu plays Lady Sagami, the tutor the bamboo cutter hires to make the Princess into a proper lady. The performances are mostly elegant and understated, presenting these people as they are and leaving the audience to judge.
The Princess is a carefree, go-with-the-flow kind of child as she grows up in the rural village with her friends. She loves the plants, animals, and people she encounters. In a word, she is simple; all she wants is to be with her parents and friends and to play. The movie poses the question of what happiness is and what can really make a person happy. The bamboo cutter interprets the gifts he receives as a command from heaven to make the Princess happy and acts accordingly. The problem is that he assumes the girl’s happiness entails status, wealth, and an opulent palace in the big city. At first, Kaguya is pleased with the clothes and her new home, but she soon grows disillusioned with her pampered existence. The Princess yearns for a genuine connection with her fellow humans, namely the common people among whom she used to live. Her father scolds her for working in the kitchen and garden, revoking the few comforts she was able to retain after the move. He likewise refuses to allow her friends to attend her coming-of-age ceremony.
Although the Princess is the title character and the most dynamic person in the film, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya works as a story about parenthood. Kaguya’s accelerated aging represents the way children grow up before our eyes. Every moment is precious and fleeting, never to be regained if missed. The Princess was a gift from heaven, and, as such, her parents try to do everything they can to bring her happiness. But her father could have served her better by staying in the woods and would have known as much if he had only listened. Her mother is more sensible about the girl’s wants and needs but has little power in the situation. She also likely thinks the bamboo cutter is onto something, putting up little resistance to his plans. There’s something innately human in the Princess’s desire to be surrounded by friends and family but owned by nobody. Her return to her celestial family in the end is melancholy and deeply moving. Her pleas to stay and apologies for going back are heart-wrenching; the situation is almost entirely the bamboo cutter’s fault, but the Princess feels guilty nonetheless.
The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is a sublime experience of visuals, music, and voice acting. This movie is deceptively simplistic but has much to think about beneath its surface. Takahata is fiercely dedicated to the story he wants to tell and sticks to a style that evokes deep emotions and memories of childhood. The medium of animation is masterfully employed in telling the magical, uplifting, tragic tale of a girl who never really belonged anywhere.