Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"The Tale of the Princess Kaguya": Ghibli's Gorgeous Tragic Masterpiece

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Oscar Nominations

Best Animated Feature

It can sometimes be easy to forget that Hayao Miyazaki is not Studio Ghibli’s only brilliant director, particularly when those other directors have infrequent, sporadic output.  Case in point: Isao Takahata, probably best known for Grave of the Fireflies, i.e., the film that destroyed my innocence forever.  Horrifying and utterly heartbreaking, his most renowned work if perhaps one of the best animated films of all time, a testament to animation’s ability to tell compelling and emotionally gripping stories.  And now, over fifteen years since his last film, Takahata has directed and produced The Tale of Princess Kaguya, a tale that only further cements his legacy as one of the greats of Japanese animation.

This story is based on a millennium-old Japanese folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, though to use its original title would be misleading as to the film’s focus.  The folk tale’s titular bamboo cutter one day discovers a royal spirit within a bamboo stalk.  It transforms into an infant, which he takes home to raise with his wife.  The infant grows at a vastly accelerated rate, becoming a toddler and eventually a small child in only a matter of days.  Meanwhile, the bamboo cutter discovers gold in another bamboo stalk, and takes it as a sign that he must take the child to the capitol to be raised as royalty, as that is how heaven wishes her to achieve happiness.

If this sounds to you like a tale of wish-fulfillment akin to a Cinderella story, you would only be half-right.  The core of this tale comes from this being the bamboo cutter’s wish, not the child’s, who is eventually named Kaguya.  Kaguya is a victim of her birthright, pulled away from a childhood that was over too soon and forced to grow up amongst a royal society where she is treated as nothing more than an object to be admired and lusted after.  It is a commentary on the treatment of women as baubles, but is also a story of a lonely young woman, pulled away from an emotionally rich and full life to a materially rich and so-called “better” one.  Much of this is expressed wordlessly and visually, and when the film decides to stop building up and deliver its powerfully gut-wrenching tragedies, it could very well leave you on the verge of tears.  (I am not ashamed to admit that I shed more than a few.)

All of this is accentuated by a gorgeous art direction that emulates the charcoal and oil painting artistry of the film’s time period.  In a time when computer generated puppets dominate the animated film industry, it is incredibly refreshing to see hand-drawn animation with such a rich attention to detail.  Every frame is gorgeous, which makes the emotional impact all the more visceral, whether in the film’s highest or lowest moments.

Given that The Lego Movie is mysteriously absent from the Oscar nominees and Disney has a near-monopoly on Best Animated Picture awards, I wouldn’t be surprised if this film lost out to Big Hero 6 at Sunday’s awards.  However, for whatever my opinion is worth, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is undoubtedly the best of the nominees in its category.  Takahata may have a limited legacy, but when he produces something, he ensures that it is a masterpiece.

Did Grave of the Fireflies cause you to tear up just a little?  May more than a little?  Leave your confessions in the comments below.

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