Studio Ghibli have always been at the very forefront in the anime film industry. Their creations have been able to reach out to any and all demographics with great success for decades, and have numerous masterpieces under their belt by now. Most of these are creations of the one and only Miyazaki Hayao, however Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies) released back in 1988, one of the most critically acclaimed Ghibli films was written and directed by the studio’s co-founder Takahata Isao. But this was something that was known as a one-hit wonder, as his other works never got anywhere near the same level of praise and attention as his first one did. This changes now however. 25 years after Grave of the Fireflies was released, Takahata’s new work titled Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) hit the cinemas, and this time he once again got it right, because this movie is sincerely a true work of art.
Kaguya-hime (I’ll refer to it as such henceforth) is based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a famous story from Japanese folklore. In this rendition, an elderly bamboo cutter finds a tiny human-like baby within the folds of a bamboo shoot one day, and takes it as a sign from the heavens that it is his duty to raise the mysterious child. However he and his wife quickly discover that the child is far from a normal human, as she grows at an insane speed. She goes from crawling to walking in a split second, she learns to talk in no time at all, and within months she’s as big as the older children who used to play around with her. Meanwhile, the bamboo cutter finds even more miraculous gifts within the bamboo shoots in the forest such as gold, gemstones and expensive clothing. He comes to the conclusion that the task the heavens has provided him is not just about raising the child, but about turning her into an actual princess of the land.
The majority of the story then takes place in the capital and follows Kaguya’s blistering journey through her youth as her foster parents are doing everything within their power to try to turn her into a real princess, although Kaguya herself is mildly enthusiastic about this idea. Now the idea of having a wild tomboy being forced to become a “proper” woman is nothing new, but I still think this story showcased one of the best renditions of that concept that I’ve seen in a while. Kaguya’s character herself is superbly written and her reactions to everything going on around her feel very realistic and enjoyable to witness. She shows in full that she is very talented and fully capable of carrying out all the modest and appropriate ways of behaving for a noble woman, but at the same time very clearly gets the message across that despite all that she only really wants to live her life freely and play around. She’s a very relatable character as a whole, and her enthusiastic spirit is perhaps the biggest reason as to why the film is so captivating throughout.
The supporting cast primarily consists of Kaguya’s foster parents, her mentor, her childhood friends as well as all kinds of rich nobles that are interested in her. None of them feel needless in any way, but it’s pretty clear that this story is about Kaguya herself and no one else, as the focus is always on her alone. In a way this can be considered a bad thing since the rest of the characters don’t get very much in the way of depth and back story, but I personally didn’t ever feel particularly bothered by that. Kaguya is really the only one that truly matters in this movie, and as far as that goal goes the movie executes it brilliantly.
What is definitely worth mentioning about this story though is the ending of it. While I obviously won’t spoil any details, let’s just say that the conclusion of this story is… unexpected. It is very unusual, spontaneous and just plain strange in a lot of ways. Was it bad then? Honestly I’m not entirely sure if I liked it or not, but it was definitely not what I ever thought I’d see in a Ghibli film at least. Personally though, I always appreciate when stories diverge from the norm and decide to go a little bit crazy, so regardless of which I respect it for what it did on principle. However I know from experience that whenever a movie comes along which takes a sudden unexpected turn close to its ending, there will always be heavily split opinions on it. Therefore I can guarantee that there will be a lot of people who will really dislike the climax. Just a warning.
As far as the production value goes, the soundtrack is for the most part rather ambient but it is very on-point for the atmosphere of the story. Some of the instrumental tracks in it however were very catchy and pleasing to listen to. In addition Kaguya also plays a little music on her own within the movie itself so it was quite diverse in that department. The voice acting is typical Ghibli in terms of feel and quality, which is of course always a great thing. I’d praise it more, but honestly I’m more or less expecting it from a Ghibli film at this point.
The animation however is where Kaguya-hime really goes way off what you’d ever expect to see in an anime movie released as late as 2013. The art style takes a very old school, classical approach which makes it feel hand-drawn most of the time. Sketch lines are intentionally left in, and at first it looks like the movie wasn’t actually finished in its current state since common sense says it requires quite a lot more polishing. But this is the style the movie utilizes throughout on purpose. At first it takes a while to get used to, but once you do it’s actually really captivating to witness. It makes the movie seem so much more atmospheric somehow, and helps beautify it as the icing on the cake. Where the animation really shines though is during the sequences of the movie which has a lot of rapid movement. When Kaguya runs throughout the mansion or the forests, or when the camera simply “flies” throughout the landscape, it looks absolutely mesmerizing. I’m not even sure how to explain it since it was so unorthodox; it’s something you really have to see in person and experience for yourself.
As a whole, this is probably my 2nd favorite Ghibli film to date (after Spirited Away), so yes I honestly liked this more than Takahata’s former “masterpiece”. It’s a bit hard to put into words exactly what it is that makes Kaguya-hime so loveable though, but I think it’s a combination of the setting, Kaguya’s character and the creative artwork. Case in point however is that I truly loved this movie from start to finish, despite its lengthiness. As with most (all?) Ghibli films, this one is most definitely watchable by all audiences, but in particular if you’re a fan of beautiful landscapes and coming-of-age stories, then you better add Kaguya-hime to your repertoire as soon as possible. Not doing so would be seriously missing out.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya: Peaks and Valleys
**This “review" is SPOILER-HEAVY and is recommended for those who have already seen the film**
**This “review” is also FAR from complete and I will be continually updating it in the future as I better collect more of my thoughts.**
This analysis may be somewhat messily written or seem to lack any sort of overarching structure. It is merely my personal thoughts and things I’ve realized while watching the film.
As one of the more recent additions, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” may not be the first title to come up with when you think of Studio Ghibli, yet I’m convinced that it is among said studio’s greatest works becoming my personal favorite in such a short amount of time. First off, it goes to say that the film is a mostly faithful adaptation of the legendary piece of Japanese literature, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” dating back to 1592. The story has had innumerable adaptations over the years, but I think Studio Ghibli helps breathe life into the tale. Supposedly, Takahata longed to work on such a project for over 50 years, and anyhow ended up churning out an amazing piece of work. I found it to be far more than just a simple coming of age story touching upon subjects such as life’s duality, materialism, genuineness and enlightenment.
The film depicts Kaguya from her birth from the bamboo on Earth and solid amount of corresponding development throughout the years. I honestly think that she may be anime’s greatest female protagonist since Kemono no Souja Erin, fleshed out in far more detail than most of the protagonists of other Ghibli films, with few exceptions of course that could come close. Once born, she is found by an old woodcutter who takes her in to raise into a princess and from there on, Kaguya grows extremely fast, from the size of a thumb to the size of a normal newborn child, quickly learning to crawl and walk at a pace far faster than a baby generally should. The phrase “time flies when you’re having fun” comes to mind in regards to her rapid growth as Kaguya seemed rather happy during this period, roaming free, discovering new things and hanging out with the other children. With this, it can also play into how children grow up so fast and how the perception of time seems to fly for her parents. Parents in the real world watch their children grow up at what seems to be an unbelievable rate. Kaguya is naïve as can be and is convinced that her life would remain this way. It is here where she begins to enjoy the daily toils of life, in one case learning to steal and in another learning to hunt. This demonstrates that even despite being princess, she is unafraid to dirty her own hands and this plays a major role in her characterization rejecting customs imposed upon her later. “A meal tastes better after working for it.” This is one core motif that runs throughout the film.
It can be important to take note that Kaguya was sent to Earth initially as a form of punishment. The gold and robes that the old woodcutter receives can play into making her life miserable and could very well be a plan on part of the celestials, the woodcutter convinced in his heart that making her a true princess would bring her ultimate happiness. In the context of punishment, it could also be said that her rapid growth and moving away could also very well play into her misery. In this case, it’s similar to giving candy to a child and then immediately taking it away, Kaguya gets a taste of what a happy childhood can be before it shatters all too easily. Out in the wilderness, she is free to express how she feels running wild, but when she awakens in the palace, the first thing that she does is prance around and explore, and this serves to demonstrate her current emotional capacity before it is suppressed. The people around her attempt to shape her into a regal princess, at Kaguya’s dismay and she rejects these customs because they inhibit her emotional expression. As a princess, she is not allowed to laugh, she is not allowed to cry. She cannot run and to ever move or pick anything up, she must do it gracefully. She must always be polite and act nobly. Kaguya rejects these customs in many instances, commonly running off in the middle of lessons and giving her instructor much difficulty. It is not that she is incapable of acting "proper," as in one scenario, she demonstrates how she can perfectly play the song she was trying to learn, but rather she purposefully decides to act the way she wants. She disguises her true nature from her “father” to some degree, yet occasionally it slips out, such as when she crawls around on her knees and tries to play with a cat, something that a princess would not be approved of doing in such a context.
As time passes, Kaguya begins to recognize that she is simply given everything. She does not have to work and she does not have to struggle. The robes that she was once happy to have as well as magnificent palace she is allowed to live within, lose their value and become worthless to her. She later speaks less frequently to others and brushes aside the gifts and letters she receives. It is here that she recognizes that much more lies beyond material wealth. Inside, she wants to truly express how she feels uninhibited, yet sacrifices said expression to please her “father” and others around her. Her “mother” in this case serves to be much more understanding and notices that Kaguya is unhappy with her life as a princess, towards the end to a much greater degree. She is allowed to use a piece of the garden to plant and tend to whatever she wants and to some degree, she ends up recreating the bamboo grove where she grew up, signifying how she still misses her childhood days. A scene where she once again encounters Sutemaru also serves to support such, tearing up as she remains powerless, unable to express her want to save him. At one point, she undertakes a celebration in which she receives the name “Kaguya,” as prior she was simply referred to as “the Princess,” yet at this celebration, she begins to start growing more jaded. She simply sits completely behind a small curtain while everyone else enjoys the celebration. In this state, she is unable to engage with mostly anyone as the princess is not supposed to be seen by others during the ceremony. She questions whether she even needed to be there and this highlights her anxiety surrounding her place in the world. It is precisely this moment where Kaguya takes on another change, in that she finally realizes that she is sick of it all.
It is perhaps this scene that completely sold the film to me. About 50-minutes in, there is a running sequence in one of Kaguya’s dreams, in which the animation grows frantic and messy, perfectly encapsulating her emotional state as she withdraws. In a frenzy, she returns to the lands where she grew up. Here she witnesses conditions that greatly contrast from those in the palace. She wanders a barren landscape and here, we can see a complete difference in treatment. Out of pity, a woman leaves out a piece of bread for her and a man talks with her casually, not so formally for once. In the palace, she is honored and carefully safeguarded, yet here, she is not treated so nobly with upmost respect as a princess, and is rather humanized, being treated as a regular person. She comes to discover that the people she knew had moved on and by this point, she believes that her happiness is dead, never to return and symbolized by the decline of the landscape. However, the man reassures her to some degree, about how the forest will revive after some time, and this gives her hope that she could still potentially enjoy what’s to come.
Conflict strikes again when suitors take interest in her, all from noble backgrounds, yet Kaguya does not want to marry. She is already torn by all her restrictions, yet her interactions with these five accelerate her skepticism. The men brashly fight over her, yet soon we discover that they don’t exactly value “her,” but rather the image of her that they have created. They all compare her to legendary, supposedly even nonexistent treasures, and Kaguya cleverly has them attempt to receive such treasures to demonstrate their resolve, yet most of the men falter. In the two cases, the suitors attempt to dupe her with fake items and this merely adds to Kaguya’s understanding of her objectification. She is viewed as a prize to be one, regarded for her beauty and skill at playing music, not exactly for the individual she is. In another case, one suitor actually embarks on an expedition to obtain the Dragon’s Jewel, but his resolve proves to be weak after he is intimidated by hallucinations. Another occasion, Kaguya almost falls for another suitor’s proposal, but acknowledges his shallowness after he witnesses what he supposes is her, and turns her away. Considering the dedication some of the suitors have undergone to deceive her, she would expect them to still love her regardless of her appearance. The one that truly changes her however, is the final suitor who dies in an attempt to grasp a Cowry Shell. It is here that Kaguya recognizes the implications of her actions. Her attempt to turn away her suitors and act as a princess serves to take a life, and in this she becomes aware of what she is doing, merely being a fake. Simultaneously though, she is disgusted by how all she knows is fake, herself as an actor on the stage, and everyone else in valuing her for such shallow reasoning. Her father believes that he is bringing her happiness while the opposite could not be any truer. Here could lie the conflict of interest, in the case a parent and child have different visions of which is best for the child. The parent may think that one thing may be best for their offspring and would push them to become happy that way, yet the child may feel towards something else, yet is inexperienced with the world and sometimes goes along with their parents as the guiding route, even if it does not lead to their true happiness. Kaguya is heading in the wrong direction regarding her own vision of happiness, a princess, yet why should a princess be treated so differently from everyone else? She is unable to exhibit her full emotional capacity, and is not permitted to live as a commoner and survive on her own. In a rage she wrecks the Eden she had created. Another scene is also important in which she leaves the palace to see the cherry blossoms, but immediately turns back to the palace once a child reminds me of her fonder days, herself realizing that she cannot ever fully return to them. By this point she has become cynical and it may be here where she finally hits rock bottom in calling out to the Moon. Only after the Emperor later departs though, does she recognize this.
Another important moment that stresses Kaguya’s character is her encounter with the Japanese Emperor. This scene truly makes note of how strong of a female lead she has become, rejecting said Emperor without hesitation and shuttering and vanishing at his embrace, which the Emperor every woman thus far has loved. Dismissing the Emperor himself valiant as most wouldn’t dare try it, he wielding unbelievable power and authority, yet Kaguya now doesn’t care, committed to her own beliefs of expressing her emotional capacity. However, now she has yet another issue to address, in the Celestials are returning. Her calling out to the Moon previously serves to symbolize the want to commit suicide, but even now regretting it, it is no longer reversible. Towards the end of the film, her hesitation to return to the Moon reminded me of the anxiety people feel when they know they are going to pass away, like a patient with a fatal disease waiting to pass away and in such a case, one has to simple cherish the time they have left. With said limited time, with what is later made out to appear as a dream to Sutemaru, she reunites with him and enjoys a few final hours in living out her childhood days once again. Here, she is able to express how she feels without the restrains the palace grants her. The scene with Sutemaru goes to represent an alternate possible path that Kaguya could have taken in living as an ordinary person rather than a Princess. Though too late, as Sutemaru has already married and moved on, Kaguya enjoys a few moments which later vanish like a dream. However, she now fully registers that she would have been happier living out her life the way she initially had, daily endeavors of being poor, and stealing just to survive. Her fascination of the commoner’s life lies with her having to “work” and “try” to gain anything, the invested effort itself making something more valuable. Here draws the dualistic connection between pain and pleasure, in which the contrast magnifies each. Suffering in itself, is its own aspect of life, to not completely discarded and turned away from. It allows an individual to change and makes the more pleasurable moments of life all the more worthwhile. This contrast is later shown with the celestial’s descent.
Kaguya’s return to the Moon is honestly now probably one of my favorite scenes in the entire medium. The celestials descend in a grand procession to retrieve Kaguya. The defenses installed by humanity prove futile against the power of the Moon, and her return is inevitable. With this grand procession however, lies something especially important, the soundtrack dissonance. Upbeat, joyful music is played throughout what is supposed to be a rather depressing, sorrowful scene, in turn, creating a varied emotional reaction and here once again, lies a major point and underlying motif of the film in its entirety. As summarized perfectly by someone in a Youtube comments section, “It’s all the juxtaposition of emotions. After all, that’s what makes Kaguya’s vision of Earth compelling: she sees the beauty in earthly life, even with its trials and tribulations. The celestial beings only have eternal bliss, and no valleys to make the peaks meaningful.” The celestials view emotions as baggage and are hence refrained from expressing them, as to why Kaguya desired to descend to the Earth to begin with, captivated by the ability to express a wide range of feelings. As previously mentioned, the celestials know only bliss and play a tune completely inappropriate for the context, representing just how distant and ignorant they are to earthly endeavors. Not only that, but said tune goes on and on and on, as if to represent the "eternal" and "everlasting" aspects of celestial existence. Human pleasure is transient, not everlasting, which runs contrary to that of those of the Moon. The difference here is that the other celestials choose to live ABOVE the suffering, in contrast to Kaguya who chooses to live WITH it. Kaguya is constantly haunted on Earth by the same struggles as the ones on the Moon, restriction regarding the capacity to feel. She wishes to live a commoner's life, embracing what life has to offer, rather than in an ascended, enlightened state, wholly divorced from suffering.
Kaguya's return to the Moon metaphorically reminded me of death in how her wearing the cloak would erase her memory like death and Moon itself being a place where one cannot express or "feel," (the celestials seem to be "above" the pain and suffering) once again, a null state like death. Life begins as an escape from nothingness, pre-conciousness, much like Kaguya’s journey, and then becomes what we know as "life," in experiencing daily struggles and pleasures, memories and adventures, then ends with a return back to the state of nothingness in death, much like the aforementioned procession. As Nausicaä says, "all things are born from the darkness and all things return to darkness." Reinforcing such an idea, I quote yet another individual, "This whole movie is about the human condition. Princess Kaguya arrived from nowhere in a flower, like conscience born from the nothingness that preceded it, suddenly produced by a brain, or a result of the soul. It is welcomed and raised and ponders on life, on happiness, on others, on human relations. But it finds nothing to answer itself. It echoes in nothingness again. When Kaguya destroys the garden, she realizes all happiness around her is "fake". Nothing is persistent. All is destroyed. Such a mindset finally makes her emit a desperate death wish when the Emperor attempts to assault her. Calling the moon is drinking a slow poison. Calling for oblivion. Calling for an eternal death. This is why the people of the Moon have no feeling, no worries; but this is also what the movie meant before. Contrasting life and death. Making people see how short life is. How unavoidable death is. When Kaguya finally talks about Earth and the Moon, she tries to convince people that living is worth it. But when the Feathered Dress falls upon her, it's over; she has fallen into Eternal Oblivion. Dead and is returning to bliss." Her return is even subtly foreshadowed to some degree in the beginning of the film in the instance that she imitated frogs leaping. “Frog” in Japanese can be pronounced as “kaeru,” which “returning” unsurprisingly just so happens to share such pronunciation. I think Kaguya is about life in itself, in unveiling it as a journey, as well as discovering the duality of pleasure and pain (much like Nausicaä’s struggle of purity and corruption) as seen with her speech in which, while she is cut off from finishing it, she seems to come to some conclusion about it. The final scene of the film, though her memory is wiped and capacity to feel seemingly lost, she still manages to look back towards the Earth one final time, signifying that perhaps, deep down, internally, her soul still remembers. She IS Kaguya after all.
I appreciated how Ghibli didn't take on a completely jovial, Hollywood-esque ending in which everyone was satisfied and was ambitious enough to leave the tale as something still something rather tragic. This truly film resurrected my hope in modern anime as I wouldn’t have expected something like this to still be produced in 2013. I’m glad to have found another work worthy enough to be inducted into my favorites.
The title of the film is not, "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter," as the myth is commonly referred to, but rather, "The Tale of Princess Kaguya." It truly is HER story.