“Princess Kaguya”: A Treasure for its Visual Beauty, Despite its Flawed Story

A very little princess, held by the Bamboo Cutter

A very little princess, held by the Bamboo Cutter

For me, any new release from Japan’s Studio Ghibli is ample reason to rush to the cinema. This now-legendary studio is best known for anime gems by Hayao Miyazaki, treasures such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro.

Studio co-founder and fellow director Isao Takahata may not be as famous as Miyazaki on this side of the Pacific, but has created at least one masterpiece of his own. Grave of the Fireflies drew partly upon 79 year old Takahata’s recollections of World War Two, in spinning the heartbreaking story of a brother and sister struggling to survive the Tokyo firebombing and its aftermath. Two of Takahata’s other films are also worth seeking out. Pom Poko is an alternately playful, sometimes elegiac fantasy of shape-shifting raccoon dogs who engage in guerrilla warfare upon encroaching humans. In his earlier movie Gauche the Cellist, the title character improves his musical skills by attuning himself to nature’s rhythms and creatures.

Takahata’s latest, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, starts off wonderfully. Set in the pre-industrial past (and based upon a 10th Century Japanese folktale), the film begins with an old bamboo cutter discovering a glowing blossom in the grove where he’s working. As he approaches, a tiny, fully-formed girl dressed in royal robes appears in the blossom, before rapidly transforming into a human baby.

Certain this is a blessing from heaven, the Bamboo Cutter hurries back to his equally aged wife with the baby, whom they agree to raise as their own. The child grows with unnatural haste, becoming a toddler after her first taste of milk and just as quickly learning to walk and talk. The local boys immediately take a shine to her, lovingly naming her, “Little Bamboo.”

Little Bamboo, playing with wild pigs

Little Bamboo, playing with wild pigs

The first portion of the film is unrelentingly rapturous. With visuals in the style of highly expressive watercolors and accompanied by a Dvorak-like romantic score, the simple pleasures of nature unfurl before the viewers’ eyes. Hawks circle above on wind currents, as Little Bamboo imitates the hopping of lovingly rendered frogs.

Takahata excels, too, at visualizing the details of ancient rural life. Farmers cut grooves in tree bark to extract the sap that will become lacquer. Trees are hollowed out for the pulp that will form wooden bowls.

I love, too, Takahata’s frank earthiness, from which we uptight Americans could certainly learn a thing or two. The Bamboo Cutter’s Wife unashamedly pulls out her magically engorged breast to nurse the infant princess, and bare-bottomed youngsters joyfully leap into mountain streams.

Contented mother and child

Contented mother and child

How I wish The Tale could’ve remained in this idyllic locale. Alas, the Bamboo Cutter is seized by the notion that he must take his wife and adopted daughter into the capital city, where the princess can live among fellow royals. The heretofore loving father becomes deaf to the pleas of the women (for his daughter is now a young lady) who long to remain in the country.

And here the story loses its fun, upbeat tempo. Princess Kaguya receives her name in Kyoto, and is trained in proper comportment by the mirthless Lady Sagami. Later, a quintet of suitors fights amongst themselves to win Kaguya’s hand in marriage, after hearing of her matchless beauty.

No doubt, women in 10th Century Japan (and pretty much everywhere else at this time) were completely subject to the whims and dictates of their men. But watching the Wife and Kaguya miserably trapped in the gilded cage of their fancy home for over an hour doesn’t make for gripping viewing. Only in its fantastical final minutes does The Tale regain its fascination and momentum.

Trapped In their pretty cages

Trapped in their pretty cages

Nonetheless, there is much else to appreciate in this film. The English language voiceovers are topnotch, performed by the likes of Chloe Grace Moretz (Princess Kaguya), James Caan (the Bamboo Cutter), Mary Steenburgen (double duty as the Narrator and the Bamboo Cutter’s Wife), and Lucy Liu (Lady Sagami).

Some wisdom, too, can be found here. Some of this insight is of the “all that glitters is not gold” variety. Takahata also nudges us to contemplate where we can find the greatest happiness, knowledge, and purity, whether within the trappings of civilization or the splendid simplicity of the natural world.

From a spiritual standpoint, it’s interesting to reflect on the body of work completed by Studio Ghibli. Both Miyazaki and Takahata clearly love and venerate nature, while sorrowing over its spoilage by modernity. By contrast, though, Miyazaki draws more upon Japan’s Shinto traditions, giddily yet reverentially portraying the kami contained in all of nature’s elements. (Once seen, who can forget the Radish Spirit of Spirited Away or the dust bunnies in My Neighbor Totoro?) On the other hand, Takahata seems more enthralled by Japanese Buddhism, considering his rich imaginings of the afterlife in this film and Pom Poko.

Credit is due both filmmakers for not letting their spiritual points of view overwhelm their exceptional storytelling skills. Even as a non-believer in all forms of woo, Eastern or Western, I cherish the work by these two geniuses. And despite its flaws, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is worth seeing on the big screen for its visual artistry, the joy of its first half, and its fascinating conclusion.

Sadly, this may be one of the last chances to appreciate a new work from Studio Ghibli. Three months ago, in the long shadow cast by Miyazaki’s retirement, the studio announced it was halting production of new films. Along with lovers of great anime worldwide, I hope with all my heart that this stoppage is only temporary.

3 out of 5 stars

(Parents’ guide: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is rated PG, due to a brief scene of violence and the non-erotic nudity mentioned above. I consider it suitable for all but very young children.)

About Andrew Spitznas

I arrived late to my atheist, secular humanist worldview, having spent decades as a Sunday school teaching, mission trip taking evangelical. Psychiatrist by day, I specialize in trauma, geriatrics, and the interface of mental health with culture and religion. Movies and books have been lifelong consuming passions; I have wonderful childhood memories of staying up late to watch James Bond on TV and waiting in a winding line to see Star Wars in its opening weeks. Nowadays, favorite directors include Kurosawa, Ozu, Miyazaki, Truffaut, Herzog, and Wes Anderson.