A few months ago I was fortunate enough to see Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. It was predictable, poorly paced and was generally dull. Until it wasn’t.
If you’re looking for a review, I will start by explaining what the film is, and its strengths and weaknesses. However, I’m mostly interested in analyzing the film as a whole, and giving my thoughts on the ending. I’ll give a spoiler warning at the end of the “review” portion so people who haven’t seen the film can leave, and I will avoid any noteworthy spoilers until then. Anyone who has seen the film, you can skip ahead to the big bold warning line.
The story begins with a man, Okina, cutting down bamboo shoots in a forest. A bright glowing light coming from inside on shoot catches his attention, and he cuts the shoot open to find a small girl sleeping inside. He believes her to be a gift from God, and names her Princess. He and his wife, Ona, raise Princess in their small mountain village, as she quickly grows into a baby, then toddler, and then young women.
Because of her startling growth, the other kids of the village find Princess interesting, and give her the nickname “Little Bamboo” (as bamboo grows very quickly). She is initially the youngest of the group, but overtime we see her grow to around the same age as Sutemaro, the oldest of the kids and something of a mentor to all of them.
Meanwhile, Okina has been finding more gifts in bamboo shoots, including nice clothes and gold. He believes this means that God wants him to make Little Bamboo into a real princess, instead of just a commoner. So he takes Little Bamboo and has a palace built in the capital for her.
He has her learn proper etiquette and beauty from a Lady Sagami, so that she can marry well and become a proper princess. Princess doesn’t want this life, but her resistance only ever seems delay the inevitable, as word of her beauty eventually bring the attention of very persistent and powerful men.
The way the story progresses is my biggest complaint with Princess Kaguya. It is a decently long movie at 137 minutes, but it feels much longer than that. The film carries many themes, some of which develop along separate arcs. Because of this, to resolve some things, the film has to suddenly jump away from the core story, have a thematic climax, awkwardly return to the main story, and then try and tell the audience, “No, no! We’re not done yet!”
Some of these parts easily could have been cut out. Even if it left some loose ends, they aren’t things the audience is particularly engaged in, and often relate to things that already haven’t been addressed in over an hour and the audience has come to terms with that.
Princess’s desire to return to the mountain is clear and understandable front he moment she’s taken away. Yet the film still repeatedly tries to express this desire, over and over again. This works to a point, driving the desire deeper, but it happens too much and takes up much more time than it needed. By the end I certainly understood Princess’s desire to return to the mountain, but I didn’t care, I was just annoyed.
As for the characters here, I’m surprisingly satisfied with what the film delivers. The story is nothing new (in fact, it’s literally eleven-hundred years old); traditionalist life forced on free-spirit daughter by her father. But the motivations and presentation of the characters adds new depth to this.
Most of this is due to Okina. He is not a man of high society who wants Princess to live up to his honorable name. He’s a bumbling, common old man who knocks his hat of every time he walks through a doorway. He doesn’t know how a princess should be, so he has to hire Lady Sagami to teach his daughter. He doesn’t care about his own honor, he wants his daughter to be a princess because he wants her to be happy, and he’s been made to think that being a princess, married, is what happiness is for a woman. Okina is an odd case where his character depth is in how little development he actually has. Despite how much his life changes, he’s still a silly old man who thinks his daughter is a princess.
The two other major characters are Princess and Ona, and both of them are characterized by how little power they have. Ona disagrees with Okina’s decision to move to the capital from the beginning, and generally understands what Princess wants better than her husband. But she can’t stop any of it. She is given a small amount of power, in the form of a sewing room and garden, and she shares that with Princess.
While Ona accepts this and is satisfied with just a garden, Princess refuses to accept it. She wants her old life, one with freedom, back, and struggles against Lady Sagami’s lessons and the life forced on her. Her character is defined by a struggle against the inevitable, even when the inevitable is unfair. It isn’t until the very end that we see a moment for acceptance from Princess.
Princess Kaguya has a scroll painting art style, which emphasizes the themes and the fact that it is an adaptation of a Japanese folktale. It is a little jarring at first, but it presents the characters so well, I don’t think any more conventional style would have the same impacted. The brushstrokes give Princess’s face beautifully subtle expressions. The gentle palette and distinct lines allow for backgrounds to vary in detail and focus, pulling the viewer’s attention in where it should be, but without having the difference in detail and focus ever contrast.
The animation works the style well. For the most part, when things move slowly, it’s as you would expect from Ghibli; very detailed and fluid. It’s in the dramatic, active scenes that it really impresses. The level of surrealism offers a chance to bring the style to life with flurrying colors and harsh lines. The speed of these moments is made stronger by the slower pace of the style most of the time. Unfortunately, the animation only gets to be this a few times, and I can only remember one instance where the movement alone was able to impact me emotionally.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is an old story, told fairly well. The number of themes it attempts to balance are interesting, but make the film cluttered and awkwardly distributed. The animation and style are what really stand out about it, but as much as I loved the visuals, they didn’t do as much as I would have hoped. It is worth watching for Ghibli fans, but don’t feel bad if you miss it.
Analysis – Spoilers Ahead:
So, as I’ve said, The Tale of Princess Kaguya balances many themes, and some of these are pretty interesting. There is the obvious feminist point, about a woman’s happiness being hers to choose and not dependent on a husband (or at least a husband of her own choice). But that’s the obvious, and the obvious is boring. No, what I’m interested in is the themes of death, and the inevitable.
Everything that Princess goes through is inevitable, at least from her perspective. Once she’s in the capital, she does everything she can to stop from having to get married, but that only delays it. Her suites don’t give up perusing her, even after she pretty frankly says that her love is unobtainable, it is like the Bowl of Buddha or the jewel from a Dragon’s neck. Even after she humiliates the five princess, the emperor himself demands her hand, putting her in an even more impossible situation. And finally, trying to escape the emperor, she puts herself before the inevitability of death.
Of course, she never actually dies in the film. But the celestials and returning to the moon is not much different from death. She loses all her memories of the world, and ascends to a higher plane. That has both secular and religious concepts of what happens after a person dies. The way her Okina and Ona cry for her is as if they’re grieving for her. And of course, the idea of marriage continues through this scene, as Princess stands next to the Buddha-like celestial man.
It all gives this very sad and hopeless feeling, that, in trying to avoid marriage, Princess is either just driving herself to death, or still ends up married anyway. What was the point of everything she did? What was the point of her story?
Princess is different with the celestials though. As I’ve now repeated so many times it must be obnoxious to read it again, she resisted everything. But when the celestials come to take her, while she clearly doesn’t want to go, she does accept it. This is why I prefer to see the celestials as a type of death rather than a type of marriage; we pretty well know Princess’s stance on mirage by this point, and it’s not acceptance. It’s not like she like the Buddha-like celestial more than the princes; she’s clearly against liking a man before getting to know him, and she at least knew the princes a little bit.
So why is Princess willing to accept death? The first and most optimistic answer is that she feels she’s lived a complete life. She’s experienced the range of human emotions and is satisfied with that. But that can be the case because her mantra throughout the film is all about how much good there is to experience on earth. At the end she still tries to tell the celestials how wonderful the earth is.
What I think is more likely is that she knows, as much good as there is in the world, she’s just not going to get to experience it. Because of all these powerful men trying to make her theirs, because of marriage, and because she is a princesses, she knows that she’s not allowed to enjoy the things she loves about the world. With her choices at this point being death or marriage, she’s indifferent between the two, so she is willing to accept death without a fuss.
That’s what I got out of the movie, but I know there are some holes in this theory, and it doesn’t explain everything. So, what did you think?
Don’t Lose Your Way.