REVIEW: The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)

An old bamboo cutter finds a tiny girl inside a bamboo stalk, and it magically transforms into a newborn baby.


By Raymond Arcega
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The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Original title: かぐや姫の物語
Year: 2013
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Genre: Animation, Fantasy, Drama
Director: Takahata Isao

Okina (Chii Takeo is an old bamboo cutter who lives with his wife Ouna (Miyamoto Nobuko) in a hilltop hut in the forest. One day while in the woods, he sees a strange glowing stalk of bamboo, only to discover an even stranger site inside – a girl tinier than the palm of his hand. Okina takes the girl home, which she magically transforms into a newborn baby.

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Named Takenoko, she ages from a baby into a young girl at a rapid rate. More magic happens in the bamboo grove, as Okina discovers more glowing stalks with treasure inside, from nuggets of gold to kimono for Takenoko to wear.

Now a young lady, Takenoko (Asakura Aki) is happy with her life in the woods, befriended by village kids led by the the street smart Sutemaru (Kora Kengo). However, her peaceful life abruptly comes to a halt when her parents have decided to use the riches found in the bamboo to move into the capital and install her in a mansion. Learning the ways of the aristocrats, her beauty has caught the ears of many men, who constantly flood her mansion with letters of proposal.

However, as time goes on, she realizes that her time in the world might soon be short lived, as her magical origins come back to haunt her and threaten to take her away.

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The Tale of Princess Kaguya is director Takahata Isao’s first full-length feature film since 1999’s My Neighbors The Yamadas. Known for stories packed with emotion and human drama, such as his most famous tearjerker Grave of the Fireflies, the world got excited when it was announced that the esteemed co-founder of Studio Ghibli would be taking on an adaptation of the famous Japanese folktale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.

The folktale is known throughout Japan in same way as stories like Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Little Red Riding Hood are known in the West. It is said to be the oldest surviving Japanese narrative, so seeing this story brought to life by Studio Ghibli may probably be similar in context to Disney making animated adaptations of our favorite fairy tales.

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The most eye-catching feature of The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the art style. Painted in a combination of heavy, dynamic strokes and lightly brushed colors, the film is a sketchbook come to life. This unique approach was befitting of the classical tale of which it adapts, and all in all it takes us on a 140-minute long escape into a place that I can only describe as half dream and half acid trip.

The dreamlike escape provides perfectly for the spiritual and emotional journey of our heroine, which is the core of The Tale of Princess Kaguya. We are led through a series of stages that not only make take its toll on Princess Kaguya, but also us the audience. As Takahata has marvelously done with his most famous work Grave of the Fireflies, the emotional adventure that both the lead characters and audience are destined to partake in increasingly gets darker and suffocating, culminating into a haunting climax that will definitely not fail to leave its mark.

(But don’t worry. Nothing will ever be as emotionally devastating as Grave of the Fireflies.)

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One thing about Takahata’s films over those of Ghibli’s other big name, Miyazaki Hayao, is the way the characters are written. While Miyazaki definitely deserves his spotlight with his fantastical worlds, Takahata’s characters deserve praise because of their more realistic interactions and the depths of their personalities.

However, that doesn’t mean that Takahata doesn’t take leaps into the fantastical himself. Princess Kaguya is full of moments that leave the concept of what is real and what is fantasy all up to our own interpretations, accented by the art and music.

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It is rumored that The Tale of Princess Kaguya is to be Takahata Isao’s final feature film. If it is indeed true, this film which took him eight years to make serves as a fitting final gift to his fans. With boundary pushing animation and captivating characters, Takahata’s interpretation of the classic folktale is a must-see for any and all fans of Studio Ghibli.


Watch this film…

…if you want to watch an animated film out of the ordinary and different from the usual mold.


About the Author

Raymond Arcega

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