A little over two years ago, Ace and I started something we called “Ghibli Month” in which we watched all the movies in the Studio Ghibli library and reviewed them. I never planned on reviewing the final two movies in said library—if I watch them, and then review them, then I’m admitting to myself that there may be no more Ghibli movies, and I’m not ready for that. However, I finally sat down the other day and watched The Tale of Princess Kaguya, directed by Isao Takahata. Upon seeing the two hour timestamp, I was apprehensive that Takahata could really utilize all that time while keeping the film interesting. Looking back, I needn’t have worried.
I also reviewed the film in an earlier Trailer Tuesdays, and my suppositions about the plot was correct—the film follows the fable of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter faithfully. However, for those who don’t know the tale, I’ll sum it up for you. One day while working in the bamboo grove, a bamboo cutter discovers a strange bamboo shoot. From it, a tiny girl appears, all dressed in regal garb. Excited, he takes the young girl home and shows his wife, and soon enough the girl changes from a small, doll-like princess to an actual baby, as if it had just been born. The young girl—nicknamed Lil’ Bamboo by the other children in the village—is loved by many and is raised in happiness despite the poorness of her basket weaver/bamboo cutter parents. As Bamboo grows (and she grows much faster than a normal human), the bamboo cutter discovers more treasures in the bamboo grove; first, hundreds of gold nuggets, then, an entire wardrobe of fancy kimono. Taking these gifts as a sign from heaven, the bamboo cutter heads into the capitol to build an estate for his daughter, to give her the opportunity to once again become the princess he found her as. After many months, the preparations complete, the bamboo cutter brings his wife and Bamboo to their new home, despite Bamboo wishing to stay in the rural home she loves.
In the capitol, Bamboo truly does love and appreciate the beautiful things her father has given her. She appreciates less, however, the teacher he has acquired to help her learn the ways of a proper court lady. She is reluctant to take her studies seriously, instead wishing to enjoy her life and honestly not understanding the strange traditions of the Japanese nobility. Yet when she puts her mind to it she proves herself as a quick study, almost instantly becoming an expert at the koto, for example. Wishing everyone to know her as the princess she is, the bamboo cutter invites the name giver (an elderly man who bestows a “fitting” name upon young nobility) to their estate, who in turn is so captivated by Bamboo’s beauty he gives her the name of Princess Kaguya—meaning “one who shines brightly”.
Kaguya dreams often of returning home, but found herself trapped in court, now further trapped by the hordes of bachelors wishing to see her beauty and win her hand in marriage. Hearing stories of her countenance from the name giver, five of the most powerful men in Japan (including a soldier, two government workers, and two princes) sit before Kaguya and ask for her hand. She’s heard that all they love about her is her beauty (which they have never seen), so she challenges them to bring her the similarly unseen treasures of the world which they compared her to. The men leave, and Kaguya revels in the idea that they may be gone for good. However, disgusted and confused at how Kaguya disposed of five of the best marriage candidates one could hope for, her teacher takes her leave. Additionally, all the other bachelors disperse from the estate, leaving the bamboo cutter quite frustrated.
One by one, the men come back bringing the treasures. However, whether the treasures be crafted or fake, or just completely undiscovered, all of them end up failing Kaguya’s test. Taking in the power she has over these men, Kaguya laments deeply, wishing to return to the bamboo forest and a simpler time. On the other side of the capitol, though, the emperor himself has heard of Kaguya’s antics and wishes to make her his. He sends for her to join his court, and one does not disobey the orders of the emperor. Except Kaguya. This disobedience charms him even more, and he pays her a personal visit in which he tries to get fresh with her, and she understandably denies his advances. Hard. He gets the message and leaves, but he’s caused more damage than he knows.
Kaguya becomes despondent, and her mother finally gets the reason out of her: in a couple of days, she is going to be taken back to the moon—where she’s from. Being so disgustingly pursued by the emperor, her heart cried out that she no longer wanted to be on Earth, calling the forces of the moon to get her. She cannot undo the wish, or persuade the other moon people to not come; all they can do is wait. Though the bamboo cutter amasses a small army, when the moon people come, they’re all quickly subdued by being put to sleep. Against her will, Kaguya is drawn towards the grand procession, but before they can put the moon robe on her (which will make her forget everything about her time on Earth), her parents manage to call her back to them. They share some tears and Kaguya thanks them for everything they’ve done for her, but before they can say good bye, someone puts the moon robe on her; instantly, Kaguya leaves her parents behind and the rejoins the moon people. While the bamboo cutter and his wife are left sobbing on Earth, there is a small piece of hope: though now in space on the way to the moon, Kaguya looks back remorsefully, having seemingly kept some of her memories after all.
Looking at the summary for this story, I guess I actually shouldn’t have been surprised that it took a little more than two hours to cover coherently. Despite the run time, The Tale of Princess Kaguya never felt like it dragged in terms of action, even in the quiet moments. And there were a lot. One of the hallmarks of Ghibli films is the time that’s spent on the moments that aren’t full of action: taking in the more mundane moments and drawing meaning from those. Kaguya has many of those moments where the scene focuses on the wind blowing through grass, or staring at something for a beat longer than may be necessary by typical film standards. While Kaguya is a film with a lot going on, it’s also a film about a girl growing up, and those moments allow the audience and the character a moment to reflect on that—it’s a vital aspect to the film. Which is why I have to suggest that if you watch this film, you watch it subbed and not dubbed. A good portion of this is because I think there’s something special about watching fables in their native language, but the few moments of the dub I watched by accident had barely any of the silence that the sub did. The dub felt cluttered, unwilling to let the audience draw their own conclusions based on the animation and music.
I do also wholeheartedly believe that creating a dub for this film ultimately harms the intention of it. As I mentioned in some of our earlier reviews, there’s a distinct difference in the works of Miyazaki as compared to Takahata. Miyazaki has a larger scope, is more fantastical, and his films lend themselves better to being dubbed because of this. However, Takahata’s are purposefully more “Japanese” in nature: they encapsulate a sort of visual Nihonjinron and thus can be somewhat alienating to foreign viewers. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Takahata’s works are how he sees his home, in the more current views of Only Yesterday and now in its history via Kaguya. It comes through in the beautiful sumi-e style of the art, and in the way the narrator presents the story. There’s nothing wrong with watching the dub, of course, but I think to get the true experience of Takahata’s work, watching the film in its native language as spoken by people who truly understand the emotions and the history behind the words is imperative.
Really, the emotional investment is what makes this movie so enthralling. That and the fact that there are no bad guys—okay, maybe the emperor can be seen as a bad guy, but he’s mostly an idiot that has never been told “no” in his life. Every character is just trying to do their best. The bamboo cutter works hard to get Kaguya into nobility, and despite his humble upbringing he finds himself handling it well. He keeps pushing for more and more things, even against Kaguya’s wishes, because he truly believes this is what will make her happy, and that this is what heaven wants. His wife sticks around with a comforting shoulder for Kaguya to cry on: it’s the wife who understands Kaguya’s heart the most, and who Kaguya can tell anything to. But even she cannot convince her husband that he’s hurting more than helping until the very end. But the thing I like best about Kaguya is how it gives the titular character some, well, actual character. While she is seen as obedient in the fables, and perhaps a bit wise beyond her years, she’s not very relatable despite being raised as a human. In the film, she’s shown as a young girl in all of her complexities. She tries so hard to do good by her father, and loves her parents deeply, but she’s also mischievous and outspoken. Going back to the moon isn’t just something that happens to her; it devastates her. She has whims outside of her father’s wishes, that even go against them, and her struggle is extremely accessible.
The one thing I’m conflicted about in this film, though, is the love subplot. In the fable, while she doesn’t end up with any of the five she sent to seek out treasures, it is implied that she may have developed feelings for the emperor, in the end giving him a letter and a potion of immortality before returning to the moon. I’m definitely not sad that wasn’t kept in the film; however, she was still given a love interest: a boy from the bamboo grove. Later on she laments that she believes she could have truly been happy if she had been with him, which, okay. It’s not entirely unbelievable since they were very close as children, and they do like each other. However, this boy only shows up in a couple scenes, which is not really enough to build a relationship off of when there are years between them seeing each other, and even more from when they spoke with one another. Furthermore, in a final scene, they talk about running away together, enjoying their lives together, but it ultimately comes to nothing. What makes this scene weird is that he was completely willing to give up his current life to be with Kaguya and run away with her, but since they had last seen each other, he had gotten married and had a kid. Even though his and Kaguya’s meeting was shown to have happened in a dream-state, his dream self still knew about his family. That’s not really… endearing. That’s kind of irresponsible, and I don’t think this Kaguya would have wanted that. Also, it’s kind of insulting to her as a character to say that she only could have been happy if she married this one guy. I know that’s fable logic, but it seems kind of poorly thought out. Who needs family, amirite?
Despite this strange change, I still highly recommend watching this film as soon as you can. Although Ace didn’t watch it with me, she knows exactly how I felt about it—after watching, I sent her a hoard of messages on Facebook boiling down to “how dare this movie make me cry”. Taking that in mind, I will leave you with one warning: bring a box of tissues. I didn’t think I would need it, but even taking a day in between watching the film and then writing this I can safely say that Kaguya is one of the saddest Ghibli movies out there, only trailing slightly behind Grave of the Fireflies. Just… prepare yourself for getting invested in Kaguya’s life and struggles.