Friday, 9 October 2015

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a animated film by Isao Takahata, co-founder alongside Hayao Miyazaki, of Studio Ghibli.

It is based on a Japanese Folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Like the folktale, the story of the film begins with a Bamboo cutter discovering a small girl inside a glowing bamboo stalk. The Bamboo-cutter and his wife, who have no children, raise the girl as their own child, believing her to be a princess sent by Heaven. The girl grows supernaturally fast, and has a happy childhood in the countryside. She develops a close friendship with a boy named Sutemaru.

The Bamboo-cutter then discovers gold and expensive clothing in the bamboo, the same way he discovered the girl. He believes this to be a message from Heaven, to use the gold to give the Princess a life as a rich noblewoman in the Capital City (probably Kyoto). Therefore, he constructs a mansion in the city and moves the family there. But this proves to be a mistake, as the Princess, now named Kaguya, can't adapt to the restrictions and artifice of life as a noblewoman.

The story is a wonderful fairy tale, told with lyricism and a dreamlike ambience.  Indeed, the division between reality and dreams at times break down. Yet there is also some humour weaven into Takahata's rich narrative tapestry.

The characterisation is strong. Kaguya is especially a very sympathetic character. One feels with her throughout the entire film, including every emotion from ecstatic joy to deepest depression. And like his friend Miyazaki, Takahata admirably avoids making of his characters into traditional evil villains, despite having a message to impart.

The animation is utterly beautiful. It has an unique watercolourlike style, looking like no other animated film that I know of.  The animation often subtly changes to convey the mood of a scene, when for example Kaguya is distressed, the animation gets more rough.

The music is also wonderful, with composer Joe Hisaishi again proving that he is one of the greatest film composers of our time. The voice acting is also excellent, with a strong lead performance from Aki Asakura as Kaguya.

This film is an ecstatic celebration of life and it's simple gifts, especially nature, family and friends. The conflict in the film comes from the forces that prevent Kaguya from living her life in accordance with these values.

Foremost of these are the cruel demands of a femininity that ultimately requires her to lose her natural, free humanity and become the possession of a man. These demands are portrayed with an almost visceral horror, as Kaguya's teeth are blackened and her eyebrows plucked. Much of the film is about Kaguya's struggle against these patriarchal norms in order to retain her freedom and dignity. The feminist message is clear.

As Kaguya's journey to the city also is a journey to a different social class, the film also touches briefly on class issues. In a significant scene, Sutemaru and Kaguya meet again in the Capital city, in which her wealth and his continuing poverty is contrasted.  It lays bare the injustice of a society in which a few live in idle luxury, while most people live in poverty and are sometimes even forced to steal in order to survive.

But Takahata also sends the message that wealth, luxury and status are not necessary for living a good life, perhaps even inimical to that goal. There are other, simpler things that matter. The film makes a sharp contrast between Kaguya's poor but happy, natural and free childhood in the countryside and her dour, unfree and artificial life as a rich noble in the city. This may sound banal, but is a message worth hearing in this increasingly consumerist age.

Kaguya is one of the best films I have ever seen. It is beautifully made, and is ultimately a very life-affirming experience.

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