The Tale of Princess Kaguya is Beautiful, Enchanting, and Maybe not for Everyone

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For a long time I believed, elitist scum that I was, that there are really two kinds of Ghibli movies: the ones Miyazaki himself did, and everything else. But really, I was wrong. There’s the ones Miyazaki did, the Isao Takahata ones, and everything else.

Takahata’s Ghibli movies aren’t really like any other Ghibli films, or any other anime movies in general. They have their own pace, their own mood, their own way of doing things. They’re almost uniformly not the kind of movies I’d recommend for kids, and not just because they’ve been known to involve the firebombing of Kobe and magical animal scrotums.

By the same coin, I think his films are the most likely of Ghibli’s repertoire to have trouble connecting with North American audiences. His latest film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, might just be the best example of this yet, a breathtakingly beautiful movie, but one I can’t shake the feeling won’t quite work for a lot of people.

After a bamboo cutter finds a tiny woman in a bamboo stalk not far from his home, he takes her home and presents the “princess” he has found to his wife. Shortly thereafter, the princess transforms into an infant child that the couple resolve to raise on their own.

Later on, the bamboo cutter finds gold and silks inside bamboo stalks in the same grove he found the girl, and decides that heaven is telling him that the girl must be raised as a true princess in a resplendent home in the city. He takes the girl and his family to Tokyo and she is trained as a lady and finds herself faced with suitors and increasing pressure from her father to enter high society, whether she wishes to or not (she doesn’t).

Princess Kaguya posterThe thing that will strike you about Princess Kaguya right from the start is that it’s just darn pretty. If this movie were the daughter of a wealthy businessman in The Stars My Destination, it would be shut in a windowless room in an undisclosed location for most of its life (shout out to my classic sci-fi peeps).

I’m not sure what you’d call the art style, somewhere between impressionistic and minimalist, modeled after emakimino, Japanese scroll stories and sort of a precursor to comics in a Scott McCloud kind of way. The extreme background will often be a blank white, figures will be minimally detailed, and the whole thing has this extremely hand drawn kind of look to it.

It’s incredibly striking, and a definite deviation from what Ghibli fans would recognize as their usual style. Like the narrative itself, it’s simple, effective, and beautiful in a disarming sort of way.

Speaking of the narrative, we’re in full-on fable/fairy tale mode here, which is where that disarming aspect comes in, and where I start to feel that some people may not be totally able to connect with the film. See, this is old-school fairy tale storytelling here. Characters will develop previously unmentioned superpowers like they were pre-crisis Superman, and the ending….well, I won’t spoil things, but odds are it won’t be the ending you expect, or the one you want.

Overall, it’s pretty melancholic as films go, slow paced and lyrical. Which isn’t a bad thing, by all means. If you can move to this film’s rhythm, it’ll take you on a hell of a dance. But I get the sense a lot of people won’t quite be able to match the tempo, and will end up sitting on the sidelines sipping punch with the chaperones.

For one thing, as I mentioned before, I wouldn’t really recommend it for kids. At least not most kids. If you’ve got an exceptionally patient, attentive, open-minded eight-to-ten year old, they’ll probably be able to watch it without falling asleep or fidgeting the whole time. Which again, is NOT a knock against the film, but against the attention span of the youth these days.

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But I think a lot of grownups are going to have trouble connecting with Princess Kaguya as well, and that’s not because of any fault of them or the film. I think North American audiences have a certain set of ingrained expectations about how fairy tales are supposed to feel and play out, blame Walt Disney if you must, but really it goes further back than that.

They expect clearer resolution, they expect clear cut heroes and villains, and especially these days, they expect it to move faster. Look, I don’t want to say that it’s “too foreign,” but let me put it this way: this definitely is a fable from a different culture, one with a different set of rules than what you’re going to expect coming at it from a North American perspective.

It’s gonna take turns that seem to abrupt to you, throw you sudden curve balls that dial up the culture shock and make it a bit hard to fully connect to the thing. I wouldn’t call it alienating, but I think it’s gonna throw people who aren’t as immersed in Japanese cultural norms when it comes to storytelling in myth and fable for a bit of a loop.

Even more so than Takahata’s other works, I think that The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a film I’d recommend more for anime and foreign cinema buffs than the kinds of people I usually direct towards Ghibli films, that being people looking for something to watch with their kids that’s a shade deeper than Disney or Dreamworks fare. And I wanna say for the umpteenth time that that isn’t a mark against the film, I just think it’s playing to a more specific audience than other Ghibli movies.

And that’s ok, we need more movies like that, broad appeal gets dull after a while. Just be forewarned that you’re getting into something a little different.

If you’re firmly a part of this film’s ideal audience, you’re in for a breathtakingly beautiful film. But sort of like Jim Jarmusch or Wes Anderson, I can appreciate that some people might just not be of the right mindset to appreciate what this film has to offer, not because something’s wrong with them, more because they’re walking to a different beat. If it were live action, it would be a Criterion Collection movie, and if you know what that means, there ya go.

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