The Oscars might’ve snubbed The Lego Movie, but at least they got this one right. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a beautiful story that is told and shown through old-fashioned gorgeous, hand drawn animation with watercolor. Hayao Miyazaki might be the most familiar name when it comes to Studio Ghibli, but co-founder Isao Takahata– the director who also brought us the heartbreaking Grave of the Fireflies–reminds us that the success of Studio Ghibli doesn’t rest on the shoulders of just one man. Princess Kaguya is charming and emotional, and presents themes that are easily relatable even though they are being told from a very old Japanese folktale. I really enjoyed most of the animated movies that came out in 2014, but The Tale of the Princess Kaguya may be the best of the year.
A bamboo cutter (Takeo Chii, James Caan), finds a miniature girl (Aki Asakura, Chloe Moretz) inside a bamboo shoot and takes her home to his wife, Ona (Nobuko Miyamoto, Mary Steenburgen), where she turns into a baby. The couple believe that she was sent from the Heavens, and that they are supposed to raise her like a proper princess. Kaguya grows up faster than a normal human, and the children in her village start referring to her as “Little Bamboo.” She develops a close friendship with Sutemaru (Kengo Kora, Darren Criss), and soon becomes accepted in her village. One day, the bamboo cutter finds gold and fine cloth inside a bamboo shoot, and takes it as a sign of Kaguya’s divine royalty. He decides it’s best to move her to the capital and build her a life a princess would desire. Once there, she has a hard time adapting to life as a noble, and begins missing Sutemaru and her life in the small village.
Princess Kaguya is both a coming-of-age tale and a cautionary tale. It shows the changes the princess goes through in her life–the happiness she feels when she’s young, the pressure put on her as she gets older, and the struggles she goes through when she’s torn between remaining true to herself or satisfying her parents’ wishes. She goes from a care-free, even rebellious young girl into a regal young woman. The story also shows the sadness related with living a life you’re not necessarily happy living. Kaguya (a name meaning “shining”) is a very strong, central character, and her stubbornness and innate desire for a simple life full of beauty and laughter makes her easily likable. Even when the most noble men in the city propose marriage, she doesn’t accept. Instead, she provides them with impossible tasks to carry out in order to earn her hand in marriage, this way her chances of having to be owned by anyone are very slim.
Kaguya’s father is often times an infuriating character. He goes from being an easy-going, loving man to an absolute buffoon who ruins his daughter’s life and naively thinks that everything he’s doing is for her happiness. She becomes a victim of a patriarchal world, where women have to be proper and be forced to marry into nobility and wealth. In the end, Princess Kaguya shows the consequences that come with pressuring your children, and what life becomes when you can’t stand up for yourself and follow your own heart’s desires.
At 137 minutes, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is one of the longest animated movies I’ve seen (next to Princess Mononoke), and there are times in the middle where the plot is slow to develop. But there are so many moments worth telling, that it doesn’t even matter. You’re watching a whole life unfold in animation, and the length is hardly noticeable once you’re encapsulated in the story. The music is melancholic and beautiful, especially the tune Kaguya plays on her instrument (can’t remember what the instrument is called) and the song she sings that is a repeating element throughout the film.
There’s a twist at the end of the film that I won’t reveal for anyone who hasn’t seen it or doesn’t already know the folktale, but it adds a lot more to the story than what I’ve already described. There’s so much presented here, despite it being a fantastical, yet mostly straight-forward story. It’s a movie for all the ages, so whether you watch it in its original Japanese-language version, or you opt for the dubbed, it’s one that deserves to be seen. I haven’t watched every film produced by Studio Ghibli, but from what I have seen, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is easily one of the best.