‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’ (2014) Movie Review

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PrincessKaguya

Photo: GKids

The reverence people have for Studio Ghibli is astounding. This mainly has to do with people worshiping at the altar of Hayao Miyazaki, but with his (supposed) retirement from feature filmmaking, I wonder how reverent those Ghibli fans will remain. For me, I have always admired what the studio does more than actually liked their films. Sure, they have some truly great pieces of work, like Spirited Away, but most of their stuff I find very pretty, without actually connecting with them. However, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is directed by Isao Takahata, the man who made me weep like an infant with Grave of the Fireflies. I wish I could say the same about his latest outing, which is overlong and treads surprisingly familiar territory in not a very interesting way, though beautifully animated.

One day a bamboo cutter while, you guessed it, cutting bamboo comes across a very unusual thing in the forest, namely a glowing bamboo stalk. The stalk opens revealing a girl you could hold in the palm of your hand radiating with the light. He sees this as a sign from the heavens and takes her home for he and his wife to raise. The bamboo cutter believes she must be raised like a princess, even giving her the name “Princess”. Upon finding some gold and some robes in other stalks while Princess grows at a rapid, unworldly pace, they pack up their stuff and head to the capitol to live in a mansion, as true nobility.

But, you see, Princess is a free spirit. She likes roughhousing, playing with animals, and stealing food with her hooligan buddies. She does not want to be controlled or made to act in a certain way, which is what happens when she is forced into a noble life. You cannot tame her. Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it? Well, the story has been around since the tenth century and is considered the oldest Japanese narrative in existence. Therefore, it is very likely you have seen this tale, or a variation of it, before.

Films that adapt a material that has been the source of inspiration for countless stories since its inception will always have a difficult time because, by their nature, they will feel all too familiar. The familiarity, though, is not the biggest problem. Issues arise in how basic it feels. Adaptations just taking elements from the story and doing their own thing with them have the ability to say something new. Adaptations of the base will just be the base. So, when the adaptation of a base story is stretched to two hours and seventeen minutes, you get very antsy, because you know the beats and character changes. The result… boredom sets in rather quickly.

I will give it up to the animation team for how exquisite the film looks. It is rather stripped down in its visuals, using simple colors and designs to create beautiful frames of film. There are moments of visual flair. The one I responded most to was a dream sequence where Princess at her naming ceremony banquet (after being named Kaguya) bursts out of the mansion, running back to her home. The colors almost get black and white. The lines get rougher. It’s a very intense shift in tone which grabbed my attention. I wish the rest of the film had the energy and verve that sequence did. I would have enjoyed myself much more.

I wish I was the kind of person who could accept a film just by how it looks. A lot of people can do that, and they seem to be much happier for it. Pretty visuals just never have grabbed me. I can appreciate them, sure, but I do not connect with them. Also, if an animated film nowadays looks like garbage, that is much more of a story than if it looks good. Quite frankly, I would rather have a terrible looking movie with an engrossing story than a spine of a story with beautiful pictures to look at.

There is someone out there asking if I saw the subtitled or dubbed version. Unfortunately, it was the dubbed version featuring Chloë Grace Moretz and James Caan. If I had a choice, the subtitled version is what I would see one-hundred percent of the time. It is very jarring to hear Caan’s very distinctive Bronx dialect coming out of the mouth of an old Japanese man. I would like to say the dubbing did not take me out of the film, but of course, it had somewhat of an effect.

I will continue to give Studio Ghibli a chance. I know they are capable of greatness and giving me a film I have never seen before. Unfortunately, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was quite the opposite of that. I want ambition in their films, and this one plays it very safe. Yes, it is beautiful to look at, but that only gets you so far with me. I also expect a lot more from Takahata, who I have seen get very deep with his thematic material and his character’s psychologies before.