Studio Ghibli’s films are frequently extremely subtle, in the sense that many things can be easily missed if you don’t pay enough attention. While The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is indeed a perfect example of that, it’s also quite different in the sense that the audience will get the story rather easily. The hard part is paying attention for the emotional storms which happen in a much more constricted way than we’ve come to expect from movies nowadays.
The animation style could be the main reason why everything is so delicate. Everything is extremely bright, even during the night and during dark periods in the Princess’ life. The palette of colors seems to always come from white, especially because the drawing fades away inside the screen, leaving white margins through the majority of the film. The drawing style really looks like the characters just started moving on their own. There is a scene where Kaguya is setting her hair in a chignon, but a little bit of it falls on her face before she takes it again very naturally. Even though the style isn’t realistic, the movements are so organic that it’s wonderful to watch.
The story begins when a bamboo cutter (voiced by Takeo Chii) finds a miniature girl (voiced by Aki Asakura) inside a glowing bamboo tree. She soon becomes a baby that grows up very quickly. The bamboo cutter finds another two glowing bamboo trees, one containing gold and another containing very beautiful and expensive pieces of fabric. He decides to make his foster daughter into a princess and takes her to the capital where she is supposed to learn how to behave as a member of the high society. This is when a councilor decides to name her Princess Kaguya.
If we consider Kaguya the protagonist of the story, then her step-father has to be considered the antagonist, even though he’s never intentionally mean. He continually pushes his child into becoming the princess she never wanted to be in the first place. She has a few emotional breakdowns where she goes back to the area where she grew up, looking for a simpler life. At one point she dances beneath a tree and accidentally bumps into a baby. When she tries to apologize, the mother comes to her and says she is sorry for having offended her Majesty. Kaguya doesn’t seem to understand and is reactionless. The few times when she has brief moments of happiness, she is brought back to the tragedies of her own life quite abruptly. Each time, it happens subtly, and few words are needed for the viewer to understand that she is confused and sad with the situation.
A lot of the story also deals with the sexualization suffered by the Princess. She is required to find a husband as soon as she has her first period, but even that is played in a way that’s extremely subtle. It would have been easy (and even natural) for the movie to make fun of the men who are trying to marry her, but that never happens. One of them even dies in a way that could have easily been played for laughs, but the Princess just gets even more confused, desperate, and sad. Near the end of the film, one man hugs her without her consent and it’s possibly the moment I found the hardest to watch because of the tension she was clearly feeling with that hug.
I honestly think this is a movie without any flaws. One year ago I said the same thing about The Wind Rises, the previous Studio Ghibli film, and I haven’t changed my mind so far. The Japanese studio has given us with two absolutely perfect movies in a row.
Commercial appeal is usually important for the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars, so I don’t think The Tale of the Princess Kaguya will get the statuette. But it was great to see it at least nominated.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no Monogatari) (2013)
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Directed by: Isao Takahata
Written by: Isao Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi
Starring: Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii, and Noboky Miyamoto