The Tale of the Princess Kaguya – Discovered inside a glowing bamboo stalk by a local bamboo cutter, a miraculous baby, named ‘Princess’ by the cutter, grows at an extraordinary rate, often before people’s eyes. Full of life, she makes many friends in the poor countryside surroundings, but her adoptive father wants nothing but the best for her and with riches given to him from the same mysterious source, he buys his way into nobility and tries to find her a husband. As rumour of Princess’ beauty grows, she finds herself increasingly unhappy at the society rules she has to stick to, until eventually something has to give….
The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya (2013) – Director: Isao Takahata
Running Length: 137 mins
Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen
Genre: Animated, Fantasy
‘THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA’ REVIEW
Based on the 10th century Japanese folktale, ‘The Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter‘, and marking the final film of long time Studio Ghibli powerhouse, Isao Takahata (whose previous credits include the hard-hitting war-themed, ‘Grave Of The Fireflies‘, romantic drama ‘Only Yesterday’, and ecological comedy ‘Pom Poko’), ‘The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya’ is the tale of a magical child; the societal pressures of ancient Japan; and the blindness of family love. With a beautifully simplistic watercolour-themed animation style that breathes life into both rural village life and stifled feudal Japan, ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’ is a sumptuous treat and fitting swan song.
The ethereal ‘Princess’ is discovered in a glowing bamboo stalk by the astonished bamboo cutter who takes her home to his wife. They immediately begin caring for her and are amazed at the speed at which she grows, sometimes right before their very eyes! The speed of growth is synched nicely with the pacing of the film which starts with many cute moments centred around Kaguya’s lust for life, through to her making friends with the local peasant boys, and leading to her being uprooted and expected to live as a noblewoman within strict behavioural rules. The bamboo cutter himself is always well-meaning, but the film does make you want to shake him by the shoulders as Princess sinks deeper and deeper into depression. Similarly, the more Princess retreats from her former, joyous self, the more the movie has fun with her poking holes at the societal norms of feudal Japan, such as turning the false words of her potential suitors back at them when she insists they obtain their promised – albeit mythical – objects that they claim to compare her to. Whilst the history may be lost on children, Princess’ acts of rebellion against being told what to do will certainly resonate!
Acting as a tale both of the wonder around the miraculous Princess and a love letter to the deep history of Japan itself, there are many elements to enjoy here; not least the occasional tangents into fantastical sections that evoke uncertainty as to the reality of what is happening. At its core, ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’ is about the journey of a young girl who is too pure for this world and Takahata expertly engages the audience with her highs and her lows, right through to the emotionally charged ending. A wonderful swan song for a critically acclaimed director who, together with the beloved director Hayao Miyazaki, founded Studio Ghibli as the seminal animation studio it grew to be. With Miyazaki’s retirement after ‘The Wind Rises’ and no new blood yet established, ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’ as the final film from Takahata marked the end of a series of heart-warming beautiful works of art.
IS ‘THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA’ SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN?
When the baby Princess is brought to the bamboo cutter’s wife he says, ‘she needs a breast’ and they start off in search of a wet-nurse. However, the bamboo cutter’s wife stops in confusion for a moment, before suddenly realising she is producing milk. She pulls a breast out from her clothes to feed the baby. Her nipple is clearly shown and the baby latches on. This is shown a few more times over the next few minutes.
There is a lot of non-sexual nudity of children throughout the film. When Princess learns to walk some other village children start chanting ‘Little Bamboo’ to encourage her. The smallest, who looks around 1-year-old, is almost naked although no genitalia is shown. Later in the film the little boy is shown naked again and this time there is a hazy animation of male genitals. Obviously, this is natural nudity and completely non-sexual.
When Princess is approximately 5 years old in appearance she sees some wild boar piglets. She plays amongst them and does not notice the mother Boar charging in anger towards them. This behaviour could be imitable, although the danger is made apparent.
When Princess is around 9 years old in appearance and the gang of boys she is friends with (who range in age from 1 – 11) they all jump into a lake to bathe. Princess slips off her robes and jumps in naked, although she is still only a girl and not developed. Similarly some of the boys’ naked bottoms are shown close to camera!
Princess and one of the boys, Sutemaru, see a field of melons. Quickly, they steal one and eat in hiding in the high grasses.
Princess and the gang climb a tree and eat wild berries (or grapes). Again, this is potentially imitable and dangerous behaviour for children. Similarly, they also pick wild mushrooms. Later they chase a wild pheasant and Sutemaru grabs it by the tails feathers before it can escape. He lands on it, presumably killing it, and they are all happy that they will get to eat pheasant stew.
Later, when Princess is living in a mansion with her enriched family, she becomes quiet. Her mother (the bamboo cutter’s wife) understands that she has gotten her first period. Once her father (the bamboo cutter) also understands he is overjoyed that she has ‘come of age’ and arranges a big party. This is very subtle and children are unlikely to understand what is meant by this scene.
At the aforementioned party Princess is in a separate room and not allowed to socialise with the (mostly male) guests. However, she can hear what they are saying and when some men are drunk they crudely doubt her reputed beauty. One exclaims ‘maybe she looks like a goblin!’ Princess is very upset by the rowdy men and runs away. Her upset shows tears briefly at first but this is followed by a somewhat dream-like and intense running sequence that will likely distract from the perceived upset.
When Princess is being prepared to be presented as nobility, her servants are tending to her appearance. Both her eyebrows are plucked completely off (as was the fashion at the time) and this is shown in close up. She doesn’t wince but one of her eyebrow hairs is pulled hard on one side and a single tear rolls down her cheek.
Princess sees Sutemaru, who she has not seen in some time, come running past her carriage. He is laughing and holding a chicken, obviously haven stolen it. He is caught by the guards who hold him down and repeatedly punch him in the face. We see two solid impacts, and hear many more off-screen. Sutemaru is shown to have a bruised and swollen face and ends up slumped face down in the street. Princess cries at the sight of this.
Various high-status male suitors try to win the hand of Princess. When they are on their way to the palace, the bamboo cutter joyously exclaims ‘prepare a bedchamber’. Both Princess and her mother repeat this phrase quietly as they realise the implications of this.
One of Princess’ potential suitors burns a robe to prove it is a genuine mythical item. However he panics and shoves his hands into the fire to retrieve it. This is brief, and he is in pain, but could be imitable.
Another of Princess’ suitors is seeking a dragon whilst at sea. He succumbs to panic during a storm and sees ‘dragons’ everywhere. The clouds, shown through his eyes, form into a dragon claw and, front and centre of the screen, a dragon face. He is terrified. The scene lasts around 1 minute.
Another suitor almost tempts Princess and he seems very genuine. However, the truth of his falsehoods are quickly made apparent with one character saying ‘how many more princesses will be forced to shave their heads and go into a nunnery?’ Princess is upset at the deception and weeps.
Another suitor falls from a height and lands head first into a barrel. He was after a next of birds and in his hand is a crushed egg with a weak baby bird half out of the shell. Dialogue in the next scene specifies that he broke his back and died. Princess is distraught by the news that someone has died because of her and in an emotional rampage she destroys a garden that she had grown and previously was shown to give her great pleasure.
When an even higher born suitor shows an in interest in Princess, the bamboo cutter is ecstatic, however he is oblivious to Princess’ depression. She refuses, which is punishable by death. So she states that her father should kill her now. She also says that if her father’s happiness is reliant on the marriage, then she will marry first, and kill herself after.
When this suitor arrives he surprises Princess from behind and grabs her. She is scared and asks him to let go, which he says is an ‘unacceptable answer’ and she must obey. After this encounter she hugs herself and rocks in emotional distress.
The last Act of the movie revolves around Princess revealing that she has to leave her family. She says she doesn’t want to but that she has no choice and that she will be taken away. She and her family are all continuously upset and crying about this. During one sequence Princess appears to meet up with Sutemaru. Sutemaru is shown walking with a woman and carrying a (naked) baby, presumably his family. However, once he sees Princess he says they should run away together. They hug passionately several times.
When people come for the Princess it is made clear that as soon as she dons their clothing she will forget her family and all the worries and pain she has experienced. Her father becomes unconscious but when he comes round he runs to Princess shouting, ‘no no no!’ Throughout this the people who have come are playing uplifting music. Princess goes to her parents for a reluctant and emotional goodbye. Later, Princess turns around with tears in her eyes.
CAN I SEE A CLIP?
VERDICT – IS ‘THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA’ FOR KIDS?
Whilst ‘The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya’ is undoubtedly a beautiful work of art with a gorgeous soundtrack, inspired animation and an immersive tale of the lost era of feudal Japan, it is also not structured as a typical children’s story. The opening Act, with Princess as a child is filled with glee and love, but as the movie progresses she becomes increasingly depressed and emotional, and despite a few lifts, the movie ends without there being any positive resolution beyond the end of a brief experience of human existence. We would therefore say that, whilst the content itself is mostly suitable for children aged 6 and above, the tone and narrative are not childlike and will be more engaging for older children.
- Violence: 1/5
- Emotional Distress: 4/5 (this is fairly constant for the last third of the movie)
- Fear Factor: 1/5 (the ‘dragon’ scenes are briefly scary)
- Sexual Content: 1/5 (this is obliquely implied and likely to go over the head of most children. Quite a lot of non-sexual nudity of children)
- Bad Language: 0/5
- Dialogue: 2/5 (Princess talks about suicide, one character says ‘all women love my embraces’ when not taking no for an answer)
- Other Notes: Deals with themes of innocence, duty, putting other’s feelings before your own happiness, social standing, reverse snobbery, male dominance, female puberty and role in feudal society, the cycle of nature, and resisting those making decisions for you.
Words by Mike Record