The Tale Of Princess Kaguya – Isao Takahata – 2013

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Isao Takahata has redefined the possibilities of a hand-drawn animated film with The Tale Of Princess Kaguya. Adapted from a centuries old folk tale, Princess Kaguya is invoking all kinds of hyperbole and it is much deserved. While, only the perspective of time can define whether something is, “best all time”, the fact that the primary theme of Princess Kaguya is the perspective of time, and in choosing this astonishing finish line and then seeing it through and then some, the film must be at least considered not only one of the best animated films of all time, but truly, one of the best films ever made.

Before I begin to discuss the text of the film, I really want to describe the feeling of watching the film in a room full of people. It was transporting in a way that was so universally transfixing that despite it’s nearly three hour runtime every soul was locked in fully to the narrative. We truly saw life itself, in all its pitfalls and joys, tragedies and triumphs that we could not look away. Many if not all left the cinema in tears of complex emotion!

Princess Kaguya is a mini-baby found in a bamboo stalk by a wood-cutter. He and his wife live simply in the forest and want for little, as the bamboo cutter has all the work he needs. They have no children and they see it as a blessing from the gods. After the baby first arrives home there is a scene that might be the all-time most adorable baby scene in cinema/animation history! The baby tumbles and giggles with abandon and even the rockiest heart would crack during this scene.

The girl grows up faster than it seems possible and even outgrows the children around her. Her country life and the freedoms it affords are accentuated here and she loves her hillside friends, but her father has other plans for her.

Seeing as she is a gift from the gods her parents want nothing but the best for her and want her named a princess in the city. So they sell their house and move to the city seeking to do better for their blessed daughter. However Kaguya finds city life and princess life in particular a source of much consternation, and to the audiences amusement bucks her straight faced hand-maiden frequently and hilariously!

During a coming out party in which Kaguya doesn’t reveal herself, (according to custom), the locals begin to question her authenticity as a real princess. Kaguya is despondent with doubt and flees her home helpless into the snowy forest.

I’m not going to lie to you, as I was watching this scene I thought, this might be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen animated. It’s just a girl running through the woods, but, due, not only to the extraordinary impressionistic turns the animation makes during this scene, but also due to the context of the moment. This girl, who basically appeared out of nowhere, has her identity being debated and she has no say in the matter. As an audience member we identify with not wanting to lose our identity, and furthermore, we freakin’ love this character by now! She’s awesome!

After some sad stuff about going back to her mountain and finding the forest dead and her childhood beau grown up and wed, she resigns to at least return to her parents. Her dad has set her up with all the best guys, who are set on impossible quests by Kaguya to bring her impossible treasures. Every one brings back a fraud and she marries none of them. Eventually she is to wed the emperor, and then shit gets super crazy.

Turns out, she’s a moon princess with super powers, and the moon is this super sweet party with beautiful people and music, and if you leave you don’t get to remember what the moon is like, but if you live on the moon everything is elevator music and white marble, so it’s a tradeoff.
The moon people come down from the clouds and take Kaguya while her parents weep. She is screaming, “I want to remember!”

So, heavy stuff man. Normally, here’s where I’d deconstruct a little bit, but man, it’s really all right there on the surface. Children are a blessing, especially to an older couple who think they can’t have kids. My folks were 44 and 47 when I was born, and I know that’s more normal now, and with cloning, its easier than ever to make a person, but I digress. These folks had a new thing to value, and overcompensated for never having a child. They pushed hard for what they perceived as best for the child, and took her from what was actually the best thing, the freedom of a country life.

I grew up away from a city, in a town of only 2500. By the time I could ride a bike, I was allowed to go as far as I could and return before the sun came down. People in the city don’t have that privilege. There are cars, bad people, industrial dangers. The world is full of sharp corners and rough edges, and in the open country, a kid can be free.

But then there in the middle of the film, in the coolest sequence is the key moment. These men, men who aren’t even related to the girl, basically society at large, discuss her identity. She can see and listen to them but has no input. So she runs she runs as most women her age do and looks to her past for perspective, but in time, the things that brought her solace and warmth are changed, thus is the transient nature of humanity, the heartbreak of pastime.

The film offers up a beautiful comparison of cultures and values, but ultimately is universal in its’ hopeful message. Whether you are parent or child, friend or suitor, cherish the time you have with the ones you hold close and do not project identity on them (especially women). Understand the freedom of the country and the restrictions of the city. Let your children play while they can.

Did I mention the score? The music by Joe Hisaishi is one of the best you’ll hear all year. When the film and music soar, so will your heart! Even though I said the ending was sad, it was lovely and bittersweet, I’d recommend it to anyone who loves beautiful art!

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One Response to “The Tale Of Princess Kaguya – Isao Takahata – 2013”

  1. Nice writeup. I agree that the middle of the film is quite underrated. A lot of people seem to not like the part of the movie involving court customs and suitors, but I found it intensely fascinating. No disrespect of course to the wonderful early part of the movie with all the happy nature frolicking, but Ghibli routinely does that stuff in their sleep.

    One little thing about your review, though: I must point out that at 137 minutes, it’s still about 43 minutes away from hitting 3 hours. 🙂

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