Directed by: Isao Takahata.
Written by: Isao Takahata & Riko Sakaguchi.
Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz (The Princess Kaguya), James Caan (The Bamboo Cutter), Mary Steenburgen (The Bamboo Cutter's Wife / Narrator), Darren Criss (Sutemaru), Lucy Liu (Lady Sagami), Beau Bridges (Prince Kuramochi), James Marsden (Prince Ishitsukuri), Oliver Platt (Lord Minster of the Right Abe), Hynden Walch (Me no Warawa), Dean Cain (The Mikado), Daniel Dae Kim (Great Counselor Otomo), George Segal (Inbe no Akita), John Cho (Middle Counselor Isonokami), Emily Bridges (Kita no Kata).
You will not see a more beautiful animated film – or any film really – this year than Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The film looks like a water color painting come to life and tells a classical Japanese folk tale. It is a slow moving movie to be sure – and perhaps gets bogged down in too much plot at times – the film does run 2 hours and 17 minutes – but there isn’t a moment that isn’t absolutely breathtaking visually.
The film opens with a bamboo cutter out doing his job, when something curious happens – a bamboo shoot grows out of the ground rapidly, and from that shoot comes a beautiful, little sprite – perhaps a princess. The Bamboo Cutter takes the little girl home to raise as his own – like him, his wife falls immediately in love with the little girl, who quickly transforms into a baby. She grows up – much more rapidly than most babies – and makes friends with the other children of the country. But The Bamboo Cutter doesn’t want this life for his “princess”. In addition to her, the bamboo also gives him gold and beautiful kimonos – which he takes as a sign from Heaven that his little girl should move to the Capital and become a real princess. There she undergoes a transformation under the tutelage of Lady Sagami on how to become a real noble, and will eventually get a name – Kaguya. She also gets five suitors – among the richest and most powerful men in the capital, even though they have never met her. But Kaguya doesn’t want to marry any of these people – she has still never forgotten her childhood friend. At this point, the movie has the character torn – on one hand, she has to live through a nightmare of being told what to do by her father, and having no control over her life, and yet on the other hand she wants to honor him. Things become even more complicated when we finally learn where Kaguya came from in the first place.
Takahata is a master director – perhaps second only to Hayao Miyazaki in terms of Japanese animation directors. His Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is one of the greatest animated films ever made. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is not quite that good – but it’s close, and even more beautiful. The film doesn’t quite have the same look than what we expect from anime films – the colors are a little much subtle and muted – and Takahata makes brilliant use of white space around her characters. There is not a moment when I didn’t marvel at the screen on what was on it.
Yes, the film is probably a little overlong, and it sometimes has a little too much plot, or repeats scenes a little too often for my liking. But the film is so beautiful, I didn’t really care. The version I saw was the English dubbed version – I would have preferred the original Japanese with subtitles, but unfortunately the only screening I could make was the dubbed one. Still, the voice cast – led by Chloe Grace Mortez as Kaguya – does a fine job with the voices (as we have come to expect when Disney dubs a Studio Ghibali film). Watching the film is the dubbed version, also allowed me to attend a screening that had a surprising number of older children (probably 7 and up) in attendance. I dreaded what their reaction would be – knowing Takahata, it seemed likely that the film would be slowly paced, like it is. Yet, I didn’t hear a peep for the kids in attendance. I assume they were enthralled by the film, just like I was.