DIRECTED BY: Isao Takahata

FEATURING: Chloe Moretz,  (English dub)

PLOT: A bamboo cutter finds a tiny girl in a bamboo shoot; he raises her and trains her to become a noble, and eventually a princess, although she has other ideas about life.

Still from The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a gorgeously animated fantasy film, but not exceedingly weird until a final act push that’s too little, too late.

COMMENTS: Kaguya is an extremely beautiful film. At times it looks like it was drawn on rice paper scrolls in cherry blossom ink. A serious, reverential, and yet generally light-hearted treatment of Japan’s oldest written narrative, it will not appeal to young kids, who will stick with it through the opening but get bored long before the credits roll after 137 minutes. Girls setting out on their teenage years may identify with poor Kaguya, pressured to be a lady against her own heart; but, despite its fairy tale structure and youthful protagonist, this is reflective animation aimed at adults.

The tale can be broken into three parts. The opening describes how a humble bamboo cutter discovers tiny Kaguya nestled inside a bamboo shoot. The miniature child grows at a magically impressive rate, and even induces lactation in her surrogate mother (who declares “I’ve got milk!” in a breastfeeding scene that I’ll wager will be cut from the U.S. release). After discovering more treasures in bamboo, including fine silk robes, the cutter is convinced the girl is a gift from heaven and destined to become a princess, which sets the second act in motion. Here, Kaguya is taken from her rustic friends and trained to be an Edo-period lady. Despite chafing at the regimented lifestyle, her instantaneous mastery of the koto is taken as further proof of her divine origin and noble destiny. Conflict arises when a series of noble suitors seek to win the girl’s reluctant heart, and she sends each of them on a series of seemingly impossible quests. After escaping this trap, Kaguya’s true celestial origins are finally revealed, and the tale wraps up on a melancholy note.

Kaguya embodies a longing for things past, starting with the nostalgic preference for nature over culture. Kaguya’s days romping through the bamboo forests with her friends are an idyllic paradise, while she submits to the pressures of civilization morosely and only to please her status-climbing parents. A scene where the foundling sheds a single tear as her natural eyebrows are plucked out so they can be replaced by painted smudges reveals all. Thematically related is the film’s sadness over forsaken childhood; Kaguya’s assumption of the responsibilities (absurd as they may be) of a noblewoman represents the loss of innocence. From nature and childhood to civilization and adulthood, and last, the final trip home back from where she came: Kaguya spends a lifetime in her tale. The finale is a dreamlike elegy, with flying lovers swooping over meadows of wildflowers and a cloud-borne procession of krishnas and buddhas obliterating consciousness. The ultimate message is surprisingly humanistic and anti-religious; “life” in the heavens, cloaked in forgetfulness and free of grief and care, is a pitiable state compared to being alive on Earth and feeling both joy and pain. And yet there is also resignation beside the rage: “the waterwheel goes round,” the final choir sings. “Lifetimes come and go in turn.” Princess Kaguya may have been born of the moon, but she’s an earthling at heart, and her fate is the same as ours.

‘s retirement left Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) as the star of the Studio Ghibli stable of animators. His works have always proved popular with Western critics and connoisseurs, but he has yet to have the sort of crossover success with popular audiences that Miyazaki made look so easy. Kaguya won’t change that pattern, and it could be the last film the 79-year old Takahata makes, leaving Ghibli looking for fresh blood. (There are sad, sad rumors going round the Ghibli may close up shop permanently).

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is screening in very limited venues across the U.S. The DVD/Blu-ray release date is not yet set.


“…cryptic in story and minimalist in form, this brave new offering from Studio Ghibli quietly dazzles… an embarrassing flop in Japan… [i]t may be better received by Western audiences, who will appreciate its strange qualities as innately Ghibli.”–Andrew Blackie, Film Ink (contemporaneous)


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