Family Movie Review: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (PG)

TheTaleOfPrincessKaguya ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewKernel Rating (out of 5): whole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernalhalf-popcorn-kernal

MPAA Rating: PG        Length: 138 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 12+. The film is about a mysterious girl who is raised by her parents into becoming a princess, and whose life is turned upside down when noblemen attempt to woo her and marry her because of her possibly supernatural origins. The main themes here are about the worth of young girls and how they're treated as property, so there are some arguments about the protagonist's worth, a lightly romantic subplot, the mention of the word "concubine," a character gets beaten for stealing, and some nudity, namely breastfeeding, a baby's butt, and children skinnydipping in a river (you don't see anything specific).

Studio Ghibli does it again with the affecting 'The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,' a film that manages to tackle the contrast between the natural world and the socially ordered one and draw parallels between that and the subjugation of women. It's a beautifully animated, undeniably moving film.

By Roxana Hadadi

When this year's Academy Award nominations were announced, there was a gigantic uproar about the lack of "The LEGO Movie" in the Best Animated Film group. It was immediately labeled a snub; everyone on the Internet was talking about it; and everything was decidedly not awesome. But practically no one was talking about a movie that was included in the nominations, Studio Ghibli's "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya," and that's a mistake and an oversight. The film is a beautiful, haunting work, and it shouldn't be overlooked.

The latest in a long line of fantastic films from Studio Ghibli (like the most-recent "The Wind Rises" and "From Up on Poppy Hill"), "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" revisits some of the regular themes and messages for the animation studio: the natural world vs. the "civilized" one, freedom of women vs. their control, the innocence of youth, the corruptive nature of greed. "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" is certainly long, clocking in at longer than two hours, but it handles each of those plot elements in stride. It helps, too, that it's beautifully animated in a watercolor style reminiscent of the French-Belgian film "Ernest & Celestine," more fluid than Studio Ghibli's other works. There's a crispness to Studio Ghibli's other films that's lacking here, but it's not lost.

Based on the Japanese folktale "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter," the film begins with a bamboo cutter (voiced by Takeo Chii), who one day discovers a marvel in a glowing bamboo stalk: a miniature-sized girl, able to fit in the palm of his hand, dressed like a noble princess. He brings her home to his wife (voiced by Nobuko Miyamoto), who is also entranced, and together they decide to raise her as their own daughter—but even as they're talking it over, she transforms into a regular-sized baby before their eyes! "This is very strange, you know; what if she's some kind of spirit?" the bamboo cutter asks, but the question doesn't really matter. He and his wife already love her, and they're not going to let her go, no matter what she is—human or spirit or Heavenly being or whatever else.

So begins a pattern of extraordinary growth for "Princess" (voiced by Aki Asakura), as the bamboo cutter names her: every so often she'll jump forward a few steps, or even years, in growing up. She goes from crawling on the floor, chasing frogs, to mimicking how they leap, to falling out of the home and standing up, to walking toward her parents, all in one sequence. In another, with the village children who nickname her "Lil' Bamboo," she goes from playing with wild piglets and barely being able to teeter around to walking confidently through the forest, joining with the others as they sing a song about "birds, bugs, beasts, grass, trees, flowers" but adding a verse they don't understand: "I will return to you."

"She's weird!" the kids all yell, but everyone she meets loves her, even if they don't know it, like the boy Sutemaru (voiced by Kengo Kora), whose family makes a living by cutting down trees growing on their mountain and fashioning them into bowls and other items for sale. But eventually the bamboo cutter finds gold and fine clothing in the bamboo grove where he found Princess, and so he decides that she's supposed to be royalty, moving her and his wife from the countryside into the city. After ensuring that she's named a princess, the newly dubbed Princess Kaguya (for the lightness emanating from her being, explains the lord responsible) is saddled with a cruel governess who forces her to pluck her eyebrows, paint her face, and blacken her teeth in the traditional way. "How will I laugh?" she wonders, but the governess presses on her that properness is more important for a noble princess than joy, sadness, or any emotion—a restriction that limits Kaguya in practically every way.

Her beauty, though, only grows, leading noblemen and even the Emperor himself to come and try to woo her. Kaguya doesn't want to get married, but she also doesn't want to disappoint her father, who is set in the notion that a good husband will take care of her. But when Kaguya's origins are finally revealed, everything changes—in a way that no one could have expected.

What is so excellent about "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" is how it juggles different ideological concerns—the beauty and wildness of the natural world vs. the rigid order of the civilized world, the "properness" of female subjugation vs. the untamed nature of female growth, the use of the environment vs. the need to protect it—but draws parallels between them all. When Kaguya flees from her suitors in a gorgeously rendered scene that contrasts her almost garishly bright clothes with the earth tones of her surroundings, she returns to the natural world she prefers and the freedom it offers. When she returns to her childhood home and sees how the mountain has been abandoned so it can regrow, she considers her own journey of growth and how it has been overseen by her parents. All the plot elements work with each other to send deeper messages about the world we live in and how we live in it, and "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" crafts them so they're fully realized.

This isn't a flawless film; there is a stretch in the middle, when Kaguya rebuffs suitor after suitor, that grows repetitive, and the forbidden love she and Sutemaru share feels a bit underdeveloped toward the end of the film. But where the movie goes in its final 20 minutes is memorable and heartbreaking, and adds another layer to the thought-provoking themes already brewing. For as disappointed as you may be in the exclusion of "The LEGO Movie" from this year's Academy Award nominations, "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" certainly deserves its place.

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