The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, 2013)

Fly me to the moon (spoiler notice)

When thinking back to Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, my memories of it are quite agreeable. I was touched by Kaguya’s fall from free spirit to caged bird, amused by her adoptive father’s rise from honest bamboo chopper to fumbling would-be courtier. It’s strange, because the actual experience of watching the film was much different – plodding & overlong.

It’s a feeling often surrounding the studio’s productions. Ghibli’s films can have the unique quality of making a two-hour feature feel like four. They’re not exactly boring – no, never – but they will take their damn time getting to the point and showing people going about their daily routines. There’s a certain fascination in that, no doubt. But where these moments are usually filled up with intricate background details and beautiful animation (often naturalistic, embellished by typical details such as rising strands of hair whenever a character gets fussy), The Tale of the Princess Kaguya omits these hallmarks.

Breaking from their usual visual presentation, the film presents a painterly world inspired by traditional Japanese sumi-e ink wash painting. It’s not unfitting, since the movie’s based on a 10th century fairy tale about a moon-girl born on Earth in a shoot of bamboo. The result is sometimes striking, but just as often a bit sloppy-looking. Heads will grow or shrink from scene to scene, for instance, and there’s just not as much animation going on as other Ghibli features. ‘Lavish’ is the term I’d use for their style, but this isn’t it. That’s not to say it’s ugly! Freeze-frame any shot and it looks gorgeous, like anything you’d find on a delicate wall scroll. Once in motion, however, it frequently feels remarkably cheap.

In keeping with their inspiration, the film would’ve done well to keep things a lot shorter . You can just about tell which scenes are added to the original myth, and it often feels like padding. The tension between wanting to tell a beautiful folktale and presenting a realistic princess works at times, chafes at others. They really didn’t have to start explaining who Kaguya is and what the mystical elements mean – that takes away from the wonder. Especially when it happens with clunky exposition: Kaguya suddenly ‘realizing’ she came from the moon after being assaulted by the emperor. That might work for a Japanese audience familiar with the source material, but as a stand-alone experience these moments jerk you out of the story.

What weighs heavier: the actual viewing of a film or the memory it leaves behind? There’s a heart-wrenching journey in my mind about Kaguya, born and raised as a gleeful, energetic child – then sullied by the clasps of high society, all through the reckless, hapless, well-meaning ambition of her foster father. He’s convinced that Kaguya is meant to be a princess and dedicates his life to make it a reality, never seeing how miserable it makes her. Kaguya is effortlessly skilled at everything, but would rather dally around in the meadows with her childhood friends. It’s the sort of stuff that hits home and makes you consider the padded walls surrounding your own life. I feel the film would’ve been better served animated with Ghibli’s usual flair – though I admire the boldness of this visual take – and with half the running time.

Roderick Leeuwenhart

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