The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Blu-Ray) Review

I can't remember the last time an anime made me cry the way The Tale of the Princess Kaguya did.

It might be unorthodox to lead with that off the bat, and while it's not strictly speaking a selling point that a movie is able to cause Kleenex share prices to skyrocket, it's nonetheless a quality with Princess Kaguya. You should know going in, especially since this is a creation from the mind of Isao Takahata - the award-winning scribe who began his career with the soul-crushing depression-fest Grave of the Fireflies - that The Tale of the Princess Kaguya will, unless your cardiac region has recently been removed, make you cry. But given that it's an overly-heartwarming, growth of the protagonist tale that follows the eponymous princess from her birth, what else could you expect?

The movie opens with an elderly bamboo cutter discovering a tiny child, dressed like a princess,
inside a strange-looking bamboo stalk. He takes the little girl home to his wife, where the two of them decide to raise her. The little girl grows very quickly, becoming the equivalent of a five-year-old within only a few hours (she probably drank some Ent draught at some point). As she grows, the bamboo cutter believes she is a gift from heaven, and must be worshipped and cherished as such. He makes a plan to take the girl to the capitol city and install her as a member of royalty. Unfortunately, this kind of goes against the little girl's preferences of playing with her friends out in the forest and being generally un-princesss-like.

The plot goes a couple of interesting places from there - with one notable thread being five buffoonish suitors who are each given impossible tasks in order to win her hand in marriage - but the film largely concerns the girl, who is later named Kaguya by a wise elder, as she grows and tries to juxtapose her life as an actual princess and her longing to return to her previous, more simplistic (and more fun) life in the forest. The film also deals a lot with the imbuing of agency within women at a time when they had little, as Kaguya tries to handle casual misogyny and idiocy from her suitors and other royals who endlessly objectify her.

So, the film makes you cry and is wonderfully pro-feminist. Could you ask for more?

Well, you could, but to be honest Princess Kaguya already gives a lot. The most striking and memorable element of the film is its visual style; it's as if an anime were put together with
watercolour frames. The art shifts and flows in a way that makes every scene appear hand-drawn and gorgeously-rendered, and colours look as if they'd been brushed rather than drawn on. The lines of definition on characters and facial expressions alternate between soft and understated, contributing to the wonderfully lackadaisical charm of the early forest scenes, and hard and rigid, especially useful during scenes when Kaguya tries to run away and the art style shifts to a frantic miasma of movement and colour. It's an utterly unique style that I've never seen anywhere else. There are similarities to more French styles like ligne claire at times, but on the whole it's an anime unlike any I've watched previously.

Basically what I'm saying is that the movie is very, very pretty.

This is on top of what is an excellent story, derived from an old Japanese fairytale, which really
tackles a lot of contemporary ideas while being rooted within an older historical setting. Kaguya's struggles to reconcile her royalty and her regularity are presented a real internal culture clash, compounded by the urging of her father to take to her new regal lifestyle and fully embrace her identity as a princess. The fact she's able to claim her own identity, as the child from the forest who'd prefer getting dirty in valleys with her friends than sitting immaculately at a royal dinner table, elevates what might have been a story about a young woman with no agency in a male-driven world, becoming a tale of a young woman's self-given agency that eclipses the short-sightedness of the men who claim to rule that world. It's refreshing and definitely a point in the film's favour to have Kaguya not be a girly pushover, nor to meekly accept her informed place in the royal chain of self-actualisation. I was worried for a moment that the plot would turn in that latter direction during a stretch in the middle, where Kaguya becomes mute and shut off from her more fun side in order to try and be more like the royals. Thankfully, that doesn't last long.

If there's one thing the movie trumpets for the majority of its running time, it's that you can be whoever the hell you want to be. Sounds like an obvious and unoriginal idea, but it's important to put that idea in the context of a contemporary society where we might feel pushed or implicitly driven towards particular life avenues we're not comfortable or familiar with. Some of us are taught to strip away and sequester what we want to do in order to take hold of what we should do, which may be to our detriment. Kaguya being able to assert herself over the older, patriarchally-minded men who try to woo her, and even her own occasional defiance in the face of her father's urgings of a fully royal existence, makes her something of an excellent role model for young people watching the movie.

The narrative is really held together through a superb combination of scripting and voice cast. The latter is full of famous names, with Kaguya voiced by Kick-Ass/Carrie alum Chloe Grace Moretz, and the rest voiced by the likes of Darren Criss, Oliver Platt, Mary Steenburgen and James Caan. Damn near everyone acquits themselves excellently here, with Lucy Liu's royalty etiquette teacher being a particularly over-the-top standout. Moretz is in fine form voicing Kaguya, with an emotive mien that is at once engrossing as it is believable. These characters aren't just brought effortlessly to life through the gorgeous art and narrative, but through what is probably some of the best vocal performance I've heard in an anime (and as someone who ranks that alongside the likes of Cowboy Bebop and the Rebuild of Evangelion films, I don't say that lightly).

And as I said at the beginning of this review, the film made me cry. A lot. Loudly. The emotional beats are effortlessly landed - remember, this is a film by both Ghibli and the Grave of the Fireflies dude - and the thematic backbone, sustained by an excellent familial relationship between Kaguya and her parents, is highly resonant. There's a particular scene towards the end consisting of nothing but the three family members declaring their opposition to an encroaching threat, which might be the emotional height of the film and that caused me to really start bawling. You'll know it when you see it.

I'm finding it particularly hard to write a lot of funny things in this review. Usually I try to engage readers with little quips and asides woven through the broader analysis, but you might notice my take on Princess Kaguya is a little more serious than normal. That's not to try and bring things down, but it's just that kind of movie. It's Ghibli, it's Isao Takahata, and it's a truly beautiful, moving tale of family and identity. Since it managed to snag me, someone who is not the biggest Ghibli fan in the world, I think I can safely say it's the kind of film almost anyone can take to.

Go see The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Then find someone dear to you and give them a really big hug afterwards. You'll need it.

- Chris

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is available now on DVD and Blu-ray from Madman.


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