The Tale of Princess Kaguya Dir. Isao Takahata

[GKIDS/Studio Ghibli; 2014]

Styles: anime
Others: The Wind Rises, Grave of the Fireflies

There’s a scene in Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya where a royal lady-in-waiting shows the eponymous heroine a long parchment scroll telling an ancient story. She delicately shows her how to open the scroll and read it bit by bit, so only a small segment of the story is glimpsed at a time and the long piece of parchment remains delicately rolled. In response, Princess Kaguya takes the parchment and, with a great whoosh, unrolls the entire scroll in one go, spreading the piece all across the hardwood floor and horrifying the royal tutor.

This brief moment is a perfect metaphor for Takahata’s film within the place of other, traditional animated children’s films: while Disney and Pixar spew out safe, diluted tidbits for children to enjoy, The Tale of Princess Kaguya weaves a glorious, complex, and often painful tapestry that evokes the great literary works of the ages, unafraid to cover up a single moment for fear of controversy or social impropriety.

Of course, it’s nothing new for Isao Takahata and his flagship, Studio Ghibli. A co-founder of the anime studio in the 1980s along with the more internationally-famous Hayao Miyazaki (the pair’s longtime love-hate relationship was nicely documented in last year’s The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness), Takahata has been creating decidedly different approaches to the genre of children’s animated films for decades, most notably the gritty war story Grave of the Fireflies. Unlike that film’s anti-war aesthetic, the focus of Princess Kaguya is on the splendors of the rural countryside, conveyed in simple and naturalistic brushstrokes reminiscent of traditional Japanese painting and calligraphy. But while the film’s tone is lighter, its message and approach are no less serious in cultural implication.

Princess Kaguya is ostensibly a retelling of an ancient Japanese folktale entitled The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The Bamboo Cutter in question, an old man voiced by James Caan in the dubbed version, discovers a tiny baby inside a stalk of bamboo. Immediately interpreting this as a gift from the heavens, the Bamboo Cutter takes the miniscule child home to his wife to raise as their own. He later returns to the bamboo shoot and finds luxurious robes and gold now inside it, and interprets this as a sign that he is meant to take the girl (voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz) to the capital, buy a palace, raise her as a princess, and find her a suitable husband.

As she ages, Kaguya’s life becomes a set of dichotomies — between the idyllic rural countryside and its wild implications and the tamed city with its promise of formality and tradition, between the rural children who affectionately call her “Lil’ Bamboo” and her loving but determined father who insists on calling her “Princess,” and between her own understanding of her place in the world and her father’s Macbethian insistence on the fateful meaning of her earthly arrival and destiny. As her family relocates to the city and her father begins bringing in suitors, this dichotomy grows in scope and unsustainability until it invariably collapses in on itself in a climax of existential chaos.

What is remarkable about Takahata’s telling of Princess Kaguya’s tale is not the originality of the story — the dissatisfied adolescence of a princess, juxtaposition of a country girl coming to the city, and an unearthly visitor learning the ways of human culture are all easily recognizable children’s film tropes — but the depth, complexity, and symbolic power with which the story is executed. The relationship between Kaguya and her adoptive father, the father and the mother (voiced by Mary Steenburgen), and the mother and Kaguya are all given a highly personal and sympathetic intricacy laced with a verisimilitude unfamiliar to many animated films. The Bamboo Cutter’s overwhelming love for his daughter is genuine, but pushes her to great unhappiness, and the complex interplay of male-female relations through the film criticizes the notion of the ownership of women as Kaguya wrestles with a Jamesian complex of duty versus personal happiness.

But Kaguya’s departure from the realm of children’s films isn’t limited to the knotty relationships between characters. It runs deep into the very fibers of the film’s being. The sight of a woman breastfeeding (“I’ve got milk!” the mother yells upon the discovery of the baby, and gleefully pulls out a solitary breast) is about as likely to be found in an American children’s film as, say, a sex scene. There’s a similar comfort with youthful nudity in a scene of children skinny-dipping, and it’s even a noted plot-point in the film when Kaguya first has her period. Such daring forays into Real Life come across as both startling and deeply refreshing in a world of kid’s movies that almost universally skirt around such naturalistic details.

Nowhere is this contrast more clear than the appearance at the end of the film of a moon-sent Buddha and his royal celestial procession. The vapidity of this jubilant parade — all brightly-colored dancing fantasies and jocular song — is the perfect embodiment of the Disney children’s aesthetic that Princess Kaguya stakes its claim against, imposing a broadened happy ending over the more complex grit and truth of the world. In a true subversion of heavenly promise, the Buddha states the belief that the world is unclean and offers to return Kaguya to the pure land of her origin, but he misses entirely the point that the uncleanliness of the world is what Kaguya loves about it. The Buddha-figure, despite his otherworldliness, proves to be as constricting as Kaguya’s own father. We see then how religion and royalty are different forms of the same forceful ideology, an ideology that misses the intricacies and beauty to be found in the mud and bugs and grass. And the triumph that Princess Kaguya promises isn’t of one person or narrative over another but of acceptance over entrapment. And it’s the ultimate subversive message to be found in a children’s film: that all forms of ideology are themselves a type of trap.

So like Kaguya herself, the film shows up, stakes its radical claim, and then departs. And we are left to ask ourselves: is The Tale of Princess Kaguya an adult movie for children? Or is it a children’s movie for adults?

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