Since recent conversation of a ‘canon’ has taken place, I find myself reflecting back on The Tale of Princess Kaguya. What a wonderful film. It truly is a neoclassical in every sense of the word and I’m not just talking about the visuals. You see, what Takahata has done is revived, modernized, and modified the fairy tale, yet preserved its integrity and profound meaning that’s embedded into every frame of the film.
Recently, I had the chance to share Kaguya with a co-worker. And that’s an odd occurance for me. With such a negative stigma surrounding anime fandom, I’ve learned to hide my true power level. This gal is twice my age, coming from a completely different walk of life, and has never even seen these “Chinese fuckin’ things,” as Oscar Ballot number 5 so aptly put it. Yet she enjoyed like I had, cried at the same same scenes I had, and found herself mystified the same way I had. So I gave her my copy. And that’s because there’s something extremely human about the film.
But this isn’t the first experience like this I’ve had.
This article, first written over a year ago the night before the Oscars, was where I came to terms with some of the deeper themes of the picture. With its addition to the canon, I think it’s appropriate to bring it back out, as it will explain my reasoning for its inclusion so much better than a retread of the topic could ever provide…
“So is this a new film?” I find myself in the car again, going 5 miles over the limit on the freeway, friends in the back seat of my Civic. Usually there’s a lot more traffic this time of day, but the road is relatively vacant, making for easy cruising. “No. It’s been out for a while,” I answer back. I proceed to detail the premise of the film, an exercise I become more proficient at each time I do so. By now I’m a pro. I’ve already seen the film three times. I know what to expect, the best seat in the asymmetrical theater, the collective cost of snacks, etc. There is something about this film. Very few things resonate with me on this level. It’s rare.
As it stands, the film is nominated for Best Animated Feature in the 87th Academy Awards, a title I believe is well deserved. The only other anime film to claim the title has been Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away in 2003, over ten years prior – but now he’s gone. Let’s interject some honesty, the Academy can’t tell the difference between Hey Arnold and Gurren Lagann, how in the hell are they going to notice, let alone pick, The Tale of Princess Kaguya? It’s a long shot, and even if it were to win, it wouldn’t mean much given the caliber (or lack of) those deciding; But if it did win, that would be a true treasure.
The tale of the esteemed Princess Kaguya is not a new one; a product of the 10th century and the oldest remembered Japanese narrative. More than a millennium has passed with mothers telling their children the story of the mysterious moon princess and her ill-fated suitors. Literally everyone in the Land of the Rising Sun is antiquated with it, it’s in their blood.
The original tale is easily summarized; a lowly bamboo cutter chances upon the tiny princess in a bamboo stalk and take her home where she grows to full maturity in as little as three months. Gifted gold in a manner similar to that of the princess, Sanuki no Miyatsuko, as the bamboo cutter is named, secures place in the capital among the nobility and high society. Not soon after, five suitors of exceedingly high social stature seek to win the princess’ affection, but must needs prove themselves worthy of Princess Kaguya, each being assigned a nigh impossible task by her highness. Each suitor fails in turn, until the very emperor himself is intrigued, asking the praiseworthy princess for her hand in marriage, but it likewise is turned down. Soon after, the princess reveals her true origin is not of this world, and soon she must return to the celestial city of the moon. In majestic fashion, her people come for her, and she leaves this world. The emperor is saddened by this, and dispatches his men to burn a letter atop the highest mountain in the land, that his words may reach the heavens (and thus results in the naming of Mt Fuji).
Several variations occur in the text, as is to be expected of a tale thus aged. However, Isao Takahata’s version is the most different from them all, the most notable being the name. The true name: The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, as compared to Takahata’s renamed The Tale of Princess Kaguya. It’s appropriate; the story isn’t about Sanuki no Miyatsuko, it’s about the Princess; her life, her struggles. It’s a personal journey, one we need to see though her eyes. ‘What does it mean to be happy?’, that is the main question of the film. Is happiness climbing higher up the rungs of society’s latter, or is it living and dying, showing no proof of existence other than the fact that you felt something?
From the very beginning of the film we are taken in by the visuals. Every time I accompanied someone to the film, the first thing out of their mouth was ‘Wow, it’s so pretty!’ It’s a simple statement that encompasses a lot, and that’s when my company would try to describe just what it was they saw. Some said ‘sketchy’, others chose descriptors like ‘water color’ and ‘traditional’. ‘Inky’ was a favorite of mine. Takahata has been asked time and again about something so striking. In an interview with Indiewire he said the following:
If one wants to show audiences a fantastic world that no one has seen or present strange characters and wants them to believe in that world, one needs to create a specific space… drawn as intricately as possible. But the aim of the work I wanted to create is different. That world is this one that we know, and the characters who appear in it are normal human beings. And the drama that unfolds there is of the conflicts that occur within normal, everyday life…That is why, rather than forcing on audiences the fully drawn details of our world, I want to have viewers recall their memories, stir their imaginations, and gently lead them to yield themselves to a comfortable, familiar world.
Forceful lines, broken lines, quickly colored washes, spaces left unfilled — the purposely incomplete pictures are drawn so that audiences can appreciate the artist’s lively spirit of the moment when rapidly sketching something that is occurring right in front of the painter’s eyes.
Interview with Bill Desowitz, December 2014
From the first moment in the bamboo grove, to the ending shot of the moon, you are in awe. But it’s more than awe-inspiring, you believe it real, as if there is a place in this world that looks like that – realism through omission. Osamu Tanabe‘s brilliant idea to draw small, then enlarge everything, allows the natural grain to breathe life into the animation, capturing the “lively spirit” of the world.
The beginning of the film is just as the folktale of yore, with Miyatsuko finding his princess. However, most versions glance over her time as a child. This is where Takahata takes his time, and where we can clearly see the message in several key scenes. It’s like sitting at the prophet’s feet, not to say Isao Takahata is said prophet however deserving a title as it may be, but more the message being conveyed. The film unfolds itself in several key scenes, many of them not privy to the tale.
The princess begins to crawl, before we know it, she’s walking, growing right before our eyes. The particular scene I mention has some of the most charming movement of an infant ever animated, but that’s not what makes it important. Her rapid growth earns her the nickname ‘Lil’ Bamboo’ from the on looking band of local boys; fitting, if not cute, but there’s more happening in this scene.
Notice the two frogs, seemingly of no consequence. For an audience familiar with the tale, there is an entire message being conveyed with nothing but visuals. Kaeru, the Japanese word for frog, is a homophone of sorts to the verb of kaeru, or to return home. We already know the fate of the princess, so this is more of a wink from the director than anything else. But then the frogs jump on top of each other, just like you see on the Discovery Channel, and then a second message became clear: Kaeru no ko wa kaeru, ‘the child of a frog is still a frog’. We all know baby frogs are tadpoles, and look vastly different from their parents, but in the end they mature into frogs. You are what you are, in other words, reinforcing the caste system at the time of the tale. The conclusion of the scene; the infant princess holds the frog in her hand.
She quickly makes friends with the boys aforementioned, playing in woods and getting in and out of trouble; in particular the leader of the band, Sutemaru, a character privy only to Takahata’s version. When we first see them all together they begin to sing, swinging sticks and throwing rocks as they go. Our princess, having just begun to speak, joins in, much to the surprise of Sutemaru. “How come you know this song”, he asks her. “I just know it!” She starts to sing again, but the lyrics are different, they’re far too profound for a girl her age. It silences the boys. It’s as if the words carry a burden.
“Birds, bugs, beasts, grass, flowers, and trees
Teach people how to feel
If I hear that you pined for me,
I will want to return to you
I will want to return to you”
It’s striking. Animals and plant life, things regarded as falling short of complex emotion and understanding are to teach us how to feel, as if we don’t know how. The statement is obvious, humans are too detached from the natural course of things. This is reinforced in the following scene, where a slightly older Lil’ Bamboo, after a day of fun up on the mountain, is told she must leave. ‘Just set the basket down and leave it’ is the order her father gives. The basket is full of grapes and mushrooms for tomorrow’s stew, her life as is. Lil’ Bamboo isn’t afforded any preparation, no goodbyes. The basket is left, and they make way for the capital.
At first, life in the capital is new and exciting, even under the tutelage of Lady Sagami, a character exclusive to the film. She embodies the very aspect of conformity, and she is charged by Miyatsuko to teach his daughter the airs of a ‘noble princess’. Lil’ Bamboo (if she can still be called that) makes light of all Lady Sagami tries to teach her. This conflict comes to a head when the beauty standards of nobility and forced upon her. Lady Sagami tries to convince the princess of the standards’ necessity. “Then a noble princess isn’t human”, the princess exclaims, dashing out of the room. “The poor thing was all tied up!” The scene transitions to a kitten after a bug, but we know the true meaning behind comment. But all this changes when the princess comes of age.
Shining princess of the supple bamboo. Upon receiving her new name of Princess Kaguya, she is inducted into society. For the rest of the film, her smiles are few and far between. As by custom, a banquet is held in her honor, one she feels she’s not even a part of, alienating her. The line ‘a fine thing’ repeated over and over reflects the question in her head. A few guests get a bit rowdy and disrespect her father, questioning her validity as a ‘noble princess’ – it’s all a farce, and she realizes it. She runs away. Frantic, desperate, longing for home, she runs away.
Osamu Tanabe himself took charge of this scene, and it is so captivating that everyone who I took to the film commented on it without fail. The now named Princess Kaguya moves with such power, such ferocity, were she not running away from the camera she’d jump right out of the picture. But that’s what the raw, human emotion does. It grabs you, and you have no choice but to watch, you’re compelled to. Where does she run to? Home. Logically it’s too far a distance to span, even for the fantastic caliber of film Princess Kaguya is. There’s a subtle uneasiness when she wakes up back at the banquet. It couldn’t all have been a dream, but she didn’t literally run half way across the countryside either, but emotionally, she did. And then she conforms.
Reaching more familiar ground, five princely suitors catch wind of the elusive Princess Kaguya, and all compete for her hand. In haste and competition, each compares her highness to a legendary treasure of the most elusive nature, only to find that whatever treasure they named with be the price of her hand; the true treasure. Perplexed, it’s not until three years later when the princess is fully matured do we see them again. In turn, each tries to fool the princess or is unable to follow through with the task, and in the end, all five are denied. This catches the attention of the Emperor himself.
Until this point, several characters have been allegorical placeholders for society. Lady Sagami is constantly dictating and ridiculing the young princess. When the Five come knocking, it is she who defines blind marriage to any one of them as eternal happiness. “Once you’ve become a noble princess, you must marry a suitable gentleman as quickly as possible! That is the very definition of happiness! With any of these men your happiness would be completely guaranteed.” Lady Sagami persists, “Do you really want to hurt you father like this? Do you understand that he is as happy for you as he would be for himself?” it reveals a lot about the father. Chasing social coattails; he can’t even wear his hat right, it always being knocked off his head. He’s totally enveloped in the way of things when he gives the excuse in the banquet, “that’s just how things are.” The Emperor is the ultimate of this.
The reverse of this is embodied in the mother, but even more so in Sutemaru. The mother tends to her garden and is seen in the kitchen far more often than her husband would like. In times of duress, Princess Kaguya turns to her mother, who consoles her with little more than a few pats, whispered words, and her presence. Sutemaru almost parallels the role of Lady Sagami, but of an opposite nature. Always pulling Lil’ Bamboo out of danger; he’s there to catch her when she falls.
Just when we think we’ve seen the last of him, we see him running with stolen hen under arm, in the capital. He’s caught, and beaten before the very eyes of the princess. “Deru kugi wa utareru” the nail that sticks up gets hammered down, that’s what has happened. Sutemaru is what everyone is, absent the plentiful, ironclad faux pas of society. Sutemaru is humanity in its natural occurrence, how we want to be, who we want to be, before the walls of common practice stop us from flying, like a caged bird.
The Emperor is the ultimate in Japanese society. When he sends promise of position in court in exchange for the princess, Miyatsuko rushes to tell his daughter and wife of the wonderful news; except they don’t find it so wonderful. In this moment we take a pause as the princess picks up a dead cricket. Like the frog scene, there is more going on. Mushi is both bug and disregard, or ignore, in Japanese, and also like the frog scene, this can be taken may ways. Being part of the court is Miyatsuko’s ultimate goal, the highest he will likely ever reach just short of being emperor. So when the princess says she will kill herself only after he dons the mantle of courtier, it comes across almost as a self-sacrifice. Words fail to convey this scene properly, as the emotional buildup throughout the entire film peaks here. You gasp as her parents do; your heart jumps to your throat.
This denial spurs the Emperor’s interest in the true treasure even further, making a sudden visit to see the princess. Here is possibly the most stark of contrasts. In the original, Princess Kaguya is caught by the sleeve, affording a mere glimpse before covering her face. The Emperor wishes her to join him in the palace, to which the princess replies that she is not human, that perhaps if she were of this world she would have served him. This saddens the Emperor, and upon returning to his mansion, feels shamed. There’s a sense of longing ‘as if part of his soul was left behind’. Not so here.
He completely wraps the princess, claiming his embrace to please all women. He tries to forcefully remove her, but she fades to shadow, escaping his grasp. He searches for her, giving little regard to his surroundings. His promise to leave upon seeing her again is still there, but forceful reminder is needed to restrain the Emperor before he actually does so. Princess Kaguya holds herself in the wake of what feels like a violation; her cloak on the floor, the room disturbed.
There is one last scene with Sutemaru that should be discussed. With it being revealed that soon, on the 15th of August, Princess Kaguya must return to her home not of this world, she decides to visit her home on this world. It is fate that she sees Sutemaru one last time. She expresses her situation to him, the helplessness of it all. Running away is all he can offer; it’s all she wants. I don’t believe the relationship between the two be romantic at any length. She refers to him as onii-chan, the title for older brother; to him she’s still Lil’ Bamboo. But the two find solace in each other because they can be themselves, who they always wanted to be.
The sudden eruption into flight may have been difficult for audiences, it was for me the fist time, I know several friends I took to see the film felt the same. But when I got a second look and more time to think about it, I realized what was happening. “Oh heaven, Oh Earth, take me in.” Flying over all the vistas of home, through all the seasons, the rain and shine; it’s one last goodbye. We need a reminder of the joy and wonder of life, especially after the oppressive aspects we see the princess suffer through. So too is there a quasi-hidden meaning in Sutemaru’s name; the verb to cast aside, to throw away, to resign, suteru. He casts society away, as slowly she casts everything away. In the end, the moon is there, and she slips away from him. Sutemaru wakes up, back in the field, leaving us to ask, ‘Did it ever happen at all?’
When the Heavenly Parade descends from the sky you can’t help but be filled with emotion. The way the clouds flow as the heavenly host plays a refrain of what I can only describe as sweet sorrow you know the time has come. Archers sit ready about the roof of the mansion, bows taunt. They loose their arrows, but it doesn’t matter, each arrow becoming a flower chain, almost as if in celebration. All that would use force to protect the princess, save her father, are put to sleep. He rushes for her, crying, ‘princess, princess’ but he can’t stop what is happening, and is placed gently on a cloud as he passes out. Sprites escort Princes Kaguya, Lil’ Bamboo, to her people and she flies through the air to meet them, emotionless.
It’s a deception of death; but more than that. Emotionally, the princess has committed suicide. She longs for a place to belong, but one doesn’t exist on this world. “The moon is a problem-free world that is too perfect,” Takahata said in an interview with Asahi Shinbum. “But for the princess, the Earth is an even more attractive place due to its imperfections and the fact it is full of life and color.” She wants to stay but knows she can’t, and it’s this pain that lead her to say what she did when the Emperor wanted to award her father. Then again when she was with Sutemaru; “Oh heaven, Oh Earth, take me in.” The parade of children sing of the birds, bugs, beasts, grass, flowers, and trees.
When it’s time to go, her parents, of different mindsets throughout the entire film, rush after her, each from a different side of the screen. She affords them one last moment, and she apologizes. She doesn’t want to forget, she loves this place, she loves them, but she cannot live this way any longer. The cloak is placed on her shoulders, and in glorious song, Princess Kaguya and the Heavenly parade return to the Moon from whence they came. Left alone, her parents hold to each other, and the last line is offered by Sanuki no Miyatsuko, the man who found the tiny princess in the bamboo; “Forgive me.”
It’s the Eve of the Oscars. The votes have been cast, and tomorrow we shall find out who won, but in my heart, The Tale of Princess Kaguya stands the clear victor. Maybe Isao Takahata will walk up on stage and grab hold of that trophy, and all with be right in the world (except for those who were pining for the Lego movie). There might be a better chance searching for the jeweled branch atop Mt. Horai. But if it’s something this movie has stated, it doesn’t matter if it wins and Academy Award, it’s not about that. True happiness is not found in silly rules that stand for rules’ sake.
“It’s nothing if you answer back. Answer back by being alive.” Words of wisdom. That is a true treasure.