The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) Movie Review

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The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
Director: Isao Takahata
English Voice Cast: Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Darren Criss

Director Isao Takahata may not be as well known outside of Japan as his fellow Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki but he’s a masterful filmmaker in is his own right. Takahata’s first movie in 14 years is a wonderful animated fantasy drama that pulls on the heart strings.

The story is based on the oldest Japanese folklore The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. In the beginning, an old man sees a glowing bamboo shoot in a forest. Now the bamboo is not empty or barren. The bamboo blossoms like a lotus flower revealing a tiny baby princess inside. The old man takes the princess back to his home and together with his wife raise the baby as if she were their own.

Princess’ childhood is filled with simple joys. In the countryside, she feels at home with nature and makes heartfelt friendships with other children. Until one day her father decides to move their family to the capital city where Princess can be taught the ways of traditional Japanese nobility.

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One of the strengths of the screenplay is that it’s a very human story heightened by the fantastical elements. There’s doses of humour and delight in watching Princess learn to crawl and take her first steps as her proud parents watches on. As Princess grows older, her free-spirited nature feels the constraints of social customs and family expectations. These moments speak to what it means to live life as a human and what it means to be free.

To get a handle on Takahata’s take on this Japanese folktale’s underlying message is not exactly straightforward. There are a lot of thoughtful story and subtle thematic components at play in the 2 hour plus run time. Also, different cultural viewpoints could influence how the movie is interpreted as is the case with Takahata’s masterpiece Grave Of The Fireflies. 

Perhaps then the emotional truth lies in the final act when Princess Kaguya’s story essentially becomes our story.  In the face of mortality, it’s a poignant reminder to live your life. That sadness and hurt is all part of the human experience as is the joy and happiness. There’s a sense of tragedy in looking back on the life that could have been and in not appreciating the life that was given. 

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Bringing to life the story and characters are the impressive hand drawn animations. Takahata’s approach in animating rough outlines and use of water colors gives the film a beautifully muted yet vital presentation. In one of the most visceral scenes where Princess is running away, the visuals breakdown to the rawest form using quick sketches and haunting brush strokes. 

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is well deserving of high praises. It’s an achingly brilliant blend of the fantastical and that which is true to life. While based on an old Japanese tale, the film is universally relateable and accessible for those who don’t usually favor Japanese animated movies. At nearly 80 years old, this could possibly be Takahata’s final film but one which certainly cements his legacy. 

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