The Tale of Princess Kaguya is another installment from Studio Ghibli, based on the Japanese folktale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, directed by Isao Takahata. It is a gorgeously animated film, telling the story of a princess who suddenly springs to life in a bamboo forest one day. Despite the very somber ending to the film, I believe that the story offers many positive takeaways.
Firstly, if Princess Kaguya (Chloë Grace Moritz) had never spontaneously germinated in the bamboo forest, the bamboo cutter (James Caan) and his wife (Mary Steenburgen) may never had had the opportunity to raise a child. Their lives were completely changed by having Kaguya in their family, and I imagine that they would not trade that for the world. They appeared elderly at the beginning of the film, and perhaps they had lost children or weren’t able to bear children, so Kaguya’s advent was a blessing.
Secondly, the experience with Princess Kaguya gave both the bamboo cutter and his wife opportunities to 1) recognize, and 2) react to the social structure of their society. By our modern and progressive standards, it’s hard to believe that the bamboo cutter would continue pressing a noble’s life onto Kaguya, She was obviously distraught and unhappy, but he truly believed that he was doing the right thing. He loves her immeasurably, and, because of the social norms of which he’s familiar, he knows that girls long to grow up to marry wealthy nobles and have a life of leisure and comfort. He thinks he has succeeded by giving her this prosperous life, and he finds it hard to understand when she resists conforming to that lifestyle. Although too late, he realizes what she loves in life: her parents, laughter, the natural world — and he fights for her, even if in futility. Along those lines, his wife knows that her daughter is unhappy, but as a woman in her society, she must follow her husband’s wishes. She cannot make decisions or defy his wishes. As the film nears its end, perhaps inspired by her daughter’s own rebelliousness, she decides to take matters into her own hands. She calls for a cart to take Kaguya to their old home, because she knows it will be good for her. This absolutely breaks down some gender normativity, infusing some of her daughter’s feminist constitution.
Thirdly, Kaguya’s insistence that she stays on Earth is important. Essentially, the society that resides on the Moon live in a Pleasantville state, where everything is proper and fine. There is no sadness or anger, but it appears that there is no laughter or joy. Kaguya spends most of her life in sadness and disappointment, unfortunately, but she has known joy and happiness. She plays the koto beautifully, an ability that cannot be developed without emotional experience. While on Earth, she explores the emotional spectrum, and she understand its worth. It is much better to have felt and experienced that to merely exist. Because of the potential for meaningful emotional experiences, she is so desperate to stay on Earth. Even though she is taken back to the Moon with her memory wiped clean, she would say that even in sadness, it was worth feeling.
The deconstruction of social norms and the triumph of the emotional spectrum are, in my opinion, the main themes of The Tale of Princess Kaguya. While it is far from the Disney tradition, I believe Princess Kaguya would be as good or even better a role model for young girls than many of the Disney princesses. She has a personality that she does not compromise. She does not accept what society expects of her, and she tries to find her place in the world.
The film is absolutely gorgeous. Studio Ghibli is known for its stellar artistry and dazzling animation. For the majority of the film, the animation style is coherent and traditionally beautiful. In certain moments of the film, when Kaguya experiences some dreamlike episodes, the animation gets rougher. The lines are harsher and longer. It begins to more closely resemble some traditional Japanese calligraphy paintings, with smearing ink and swift strokes. The emotion that this aggressive animation elicits is powerful, because it already is a visually striking and musically active moment. Those two dream incidents have the most powerful animation sequences in the film.
Lastly, the music has an important role in the film. Along with her radiant beauty, Kaguya is a talented musician on the koto. She sings a song from her heart that turns out to be a song from the Moon. The koto music written for the film is gorgeous. The score is mostly pentatonic, which is in keeping with a Japanese story. There are certain sequences without dialogue where animation and music collaborate to make powerful moments. As illustrated above, Kaguya’s two dreamlike episodes use animation to move the viewer, but because there’s no dialogue, composer Joe Hisaishi is able to create an equal power in the music. Similarly, in the scene where Kaguya and Sutemaru (Darren Criss) are flying through the air, the music takes centerstage with some rhapsodic melodies that sound like flight. Hisaishi also uses music to create discomfort. When the Moon community is arriving to take Kaguya away, they come in a procession. Moon musicians are playing a jaunty and upbeat melody that is the complete opposite of our mood. We’re anxious, hoping that Kaguya will be able to stay, and the music is disgustingly cheery. However, the most impactful use of music in the film occurs anytime the moonlight strikes the bamboo forest. When Kaguya is first “born”, when other riches are presented to the bamboo maker in the forest, music suddenly halts after a jarring strike of a bell. It not only allows the visual light on screen to shine, but it also sounds like a magical light striking the forest. It is unmistakeable and immediately draws attention to the light.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a somber tale that has several silver linings. While Kaguya may have experienced many disappointments in her life, she did know unconditional love. For every sadness she felt, she had experienced a happiness. If anything, her tale inspires us all to take advantage of the people in our lives.