The Tale of Princess Kaguya

TITLE  かぐや姫の物語
DIRECTOR  Isao Takahata
COMPANY  Studio Ghibli
YEAR 2013

REVIEW by Natalie Belton
RATING ★★★★★ 

Isao Takahata is an unusual director, especially for an anime director, given that he was never trained as an animator. Takahata's films tend to be focused around mundane everyday experiences, where as his close friend and collaborator, Hayao Miyazaki, tends to make larger scale epics or family fantasy movies. (Perhaps this is the reason that Miyazaki tends to be better known than Takahada, as his films are more accessible to most audiences. Outside of the morbidly depressing, but excellent, Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Takahada's movies are often overlooked in the West.)

After an absence of 14 years, Takahada officially returned to the big screen with The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Initially, Kaguya was supposed to be released as double bill alongside Miyazaki's The Wind Rises (2013), but was released several months later due to falling behind schedule. Princess Kaguya is based on the Japanese folktale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, which is about an old couple who find a baby girl inside a bamboo stalk and decide to raise her as their own. 

Does Kaguya bring a miracle into her family's life, an extra burden, or an opportunity to grow?

The Tale of Princess Kaguya has a relatively small cast of characters. We get to know Kaguya and her family quite well, along with her childhood friend, Satemaru, and her stern governess, Lady Sagami. Other characters such as the various suitors that try to win Kaguya's hand aren't given much development, but this actually works largely in the film's favor. Kaguya herself is a quiet, often inquisitive child. She grows unusually fast, earning the nickname Takeneko ("Little Bamboo") from the other children in her village. Kaguya loves playing outdoors and is more interested in playing with her peers than material pursuits.

As she grows older, however, her adoptive father becomes increasingly convinced that his daughter deserves the best. After finding gold and some cloth in the bamboo grove, the Bamboo Cutter convinces himself that is a sign that Kaguya should be wed to a wealthy suitor. Believing that Kaguya is divine royalty, he moves his small family to the city. Kaguya is trained to be a 'proper lady,' but after the glamor of her new life wears off, she begins to miss her previous home terribly. Her life of royalty has become a cage, and she feels that she can no longer express herself as freely she used to.

It's better to live poor but happy than to live surrounded by wealth and misery.

If this isn't symbolic, I don't know what is. 

When the suitors arrive, Kaguya is largely disinterested. The noblemen compare her to countless fabled treasures. To test their loyalty, and to hopefully drive them away, Kaguya tells her suitors to obtain the treasures. None of them are successful: two present fake objects, the youngest almost convinces Kaguya to wed him (before his angry wife shows up), and the last actually dies in an attempt to find his treasure. At one point, Kaguya even attempts to run away back to the mountains, only to find that her friends have moved away.

The servant seems to be excited by all of the men though.

Kaguya's two parents have contrasting personalities. Her father is often overly ambitious. He wants the best for his adopted daughter, but is largely oblivious to Kaguya's true emotions. (Kaguya mainly puts up with society ordeals because she wants her father to be happy.) Kaguya's mother, on the other hand, is far more down to earth, and is often the voice of reason. She is far more aware that something is amiss. However, by the time that Kaguya's true origins are revealed it is too late for her parents to do anything about it.

The art style used in the film very distinct from other Studio Ghibli movies and anime as a whole. Even though the film looks as though it is entirely hand drawn, it is digitally colored. (Isao Takahata's previous film, My Neighbors the Yamadas [1999], used a similar technique, and was the first Studio Ghibli film to be produced solely with computers.) The animation used in The Tale of Princess Kaguya is largely based upon traditional sumi-e watercolor paintings. Graceful long strokes are used for more calm, relaxed scenes, whereas rushed, jagged lines emphasize frenzied, stressed situations. 

The impact of this scene is indescribable unless you see it in motion.

Takahata's movie is a slow paced one and is, in fact, the longest Studio Ghibli film, barely beating out Princess Mononoke by four minutes. It may confuse or bore those who are unaccustomed to neorealism or expecting an action packed epic. However, for everybody else I strongly recommend watching this film. It's a bitter sweet story that manages to be both hopeful and sad, and occasionally even funny, all at once.

Don't be so glum, Kaguya, at least Spirited Away won an Oscar.

About the English Dub:

Unlike the majority of Studio Ghibli films, Kaguya is not dubbed or distributed by Disney. Instead, the small company, G-Kids, is at the helm. (Disney seems to have distanced itself from Ghibli since Miyazaki's 'retirement.') Thus, the casting consists largely of B-list actors. Kaguya is portrayed by Chloe Grace Moretz (500 Days of Summer, Hugo, Kick Ass) who does a decent job. She is appropriately calm and levelheaded, and manages to pick up on the little emotional nuances reflected in the film's minimalist art style. Mary Steenburgen and James Caan are also relatively good as Kaguya's parents, although Caan does tend to 'overact' on occasion. While not quite as strong as the other Ghibli dubs, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is certainly watchable in English, but it is still recommended that the viewer stick with the original Japanese version.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR   Natalie Belton is currently a college student majoring in Anthropology and Geography with a passionate interest in culture, film, and art. Outside of writing for CDR, she also maintain her own animation and movie blog, The Animatorium.  For any questions, Natalie may be reached at