Sunday, May 31, 2015

Syan Vs Movies: The Tale of Princess Kaguya

A.k.a. “It Was Better In Okami”

In Okami, both characters were likeable

Based on a thousand year old folktale, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” tells the story of a tiny child found in the woods by a Bamboo Cutter who is raised up to become a princess before she returns to her mysterious home.

This is the illustrious Studio Ghibli’s 19th feature film and the 12th film directed by one of its founders, Isao Takahata.  While a visionary director in his own right, Takahata has long been overshadowed by his more successful peer in Hayao Miyazaki. So now, with Miyazaki having already released his final film “The Wind Rises,” Takahata has an opportunity to show himself as a preeminent director of animation.

Takahata is the director behind beloved works like “Pom Poko” and “Grave of the Fireflies” and one of the absolute gems of early anime, “Prince of the Sun.”  Unfortunately, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” suffers from several issues that prevent it from being one of Studio Ghibli’s masterpieces. The art style, the pacing and the characterization all leave much to be desired. 

She hardly says a word, but steals the screen in every scene she appears in.

Takahata takes a story wherein a sweet elderly couple finds a young, magical child and raises her with love and kindness, and adds in a fatal character flaw to the Bamboo Cutter that makes him rude, greedy and obsessed with position.  He is the wonderful, caring Bamboo Cutter of old in the beginning, but when he discovers precious valuables in the bamboo grove and is able to move to the city and raise Kaguya up to princess with his newfound wealth, he becomes a detestable character. 

Similarly, Kaguya has an adorable relationship as a child with a young boy named Sutemaru. He only knows her as Little Bamboo, but from early on he is protective and trusting of her. Kaguya thinks of him after she is taken to the city, and is shocked when she meets him, but they aren’t able to share any words. After a few years pass, she meets up with him again and talks about how she wishes she could be with him and he says likewise. Yet, as her magic seems to fade and she returns to her place in the town, he is left back in his village, only to be approached by his wife and child.  How am I to cheer for a love story about a man longing for adultery and a girl just looking to escape to a more simple time? 

Let's fly away from our problems, aka your wife and kid and my responsibilities

Kaguya herself is the most fully-developed character. Her ease at adapting to anything set before her allows her to progress through the film into maturity. As a child she trusts everyone and loving of adventure. When they find wealth and become the 10th Century Japan version of the Beverly Hillbillies, she struggles and rebels against the rigid constraints placed upon her. When she accepts the ways of nobility, she becomes a forceful voice, but loses her ability to be around strangers. By caging the princess in the ways of the high-class, they turned a free-spirited girl who loved to run and play with the boys into a sad girl who is terrified to be touched or looked upon.

Her greatest moments come when she shows her noble suitors how disingenuous they truly are, as they all referred to her as different types of legendary items. So, she says that her terms of accepting their marriage proposals are that they must bring her this legendary item of which they spoke.  Some took this as a noble quest and actually sought out to see if they could find their “holy grail” and died in the search. Kaguya reacts with horror and sadness at their deaths and seems to believe she is responsible.  Others tried to make fabrications and earn her hand in marriage through lies and deception.  The Mikado, or Emperor of Japan, himself tries to take her as a bride, and this drives her away from the world more than ever before. This creepy and forceful interaction is the most disgusting scene of the movie, as a lecherous older man grabs onto and holds a visibly terrified young girl, but it does thankfully lead to Kaguya’s most empowering moment in the film.   

He just looks like a scumbag, right?

The pacing in this movie is horrendous.  For a movie where the main character ages from an infant to her teens in a matter of months, it sure made me feel like it took the full 13 years.  The weakest part of the film is certainly the first act. The Bamboo Cutter finding the tiny girl in the bamboo grove and taking her in is illustrated gorgeously, but then the movie slows to a crawl as we see multiple examples of “Little Bamboo” (not yet named Kaguya), growing almost every time people turn around and learning how to do certain tasks with incredible ease, even predicting the lyrics of songs she has never heard before.  The same piece of information about her growing quickly, like a bamboo shoot, is nailed in endlessly.

The art style is one that leaves me conflicted. It is a gorgeous tribute to classical woodblock prints. However, it grows wearisome over the movie’s long 137 minute runtime. The stiff art style causes the animation to need to move slowly, and when it tries to show a scene of speed, it reduces the art to mere storyboard animation. I get the artistic interpretation, but the emotion of Kaguya fleeing from her envisioned prison is entirely lost when the scene breaks down all detail. This is just my own feelings, but when Studio Ghibli, a production studio that is known for having some of the most consistently lush animation, delivers a lackluster sketch in place of their usual resplendent quality it feels even more noticeable.  My issue with the animation does not concern the landscape and background scenery, though. Near the end of the film, there is a gorgeous sequence of nature that is truly breath-taking.

Why finish animating something when you can use storyboards
and call it artistic interpretation?

There’s a moment where Kaguya, who feels trapped in her position as a princess, is given a bird as a gift. The bird is there flying around its cage for all of two seconds and I looked at my friend and said “$10 says she lets the bird out to fly free in the next minute,” and sure enough, the movie fulfills that tired trope of in-your-face imagery right away.  Lacking in much of Studio Ghibli’s usual subtlety and instead opts for over-the-top reactions.

“The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is a good movie that could have benefitted greatly from trimming down several points and bringing it closer to a 90 minute runtime.  The art style grates, the characters are hard to like, and the plot is too reliant upon tropes and forced imagery.

Short version: If you love animation, you can appreciate the artistic attempts made by “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” but be warned that it takes a while to really move the action. And you might be better off just playing Okami. That game is amazing. 

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Look into other Syan Vs Movies reviews:  San AndreasPitch Perfect 2Mad Max: Fury Road, and Ex Machina

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