Director: Isao Takahata
Screenplay: Isao Takahata, Riko Sakaguchi, Mike Jones (English Version)
Starring: Aki Asakura, Kengo Kôra (Japanese original), Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen (English version)
Running Time: 137 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I’m a big fan of the work of Studio Ghibli, particularly the films of Hayao Miyazaki. Some of the last few titles made by other members of the studio haven’t quite matched up to Miyazaki’s greatest films, but Isao Takahata is one of the few directors whose work can stand up against his colleague’s. His masterpiece, Grave of the Fireflies is pretty harrowing, but still one of the greatest animated films ever made. So of course, I was eagerly anticipating the 79 year old director’s latest release, The Tale of Princess Kaguya. It played at a few festivals over the last year or two and some clips and trailers have been knocking about, getting me desperate to see the film and here it finally is. Darren tried to lower my expectations when he reviewed the film for our podcast and was disappointed (http://blueprintreview.co.uk/2015/04/blueprint-review-podcast-episode-46/), but I ignored him.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya opens with an ageing bamboo cutter finding a tiny girl dressed in splendid robes inside a bamboo shoot. The girl turns into a baby before his eyes and he and his wife take her in to look after her as their own child. The baby grows up much more rapidly than other children, causing the friends she makes in the forest to tease her and call her ‘lil bamboo’. She falls in love with the nature around her and grows very close to a young boy named Sutemaru. However, as she grows quickly older and more beautiful, her surrogate father decides to move the family to the capital, aided by the vast quantities of gold he finds inside some bamboo trees. He believes the girl is a princess and that God is blessing him with wealth to make sure she grows up as a true member of royalty.
The girl is named Princess Kaguya by a local statesman and she soon becomes a figure of great interest among the country, particularly the wealthy men who want this mysterious beauty to be their wife. The princess isn’t interested though and longs to go back home to the forest where she had friends and the bounty of nature around her. She makes it as difficult as possible for her suitors to win her hand, but they try as hard as they can. In the meantime, the princess grows more and more distant from the world.
Well, I probably should have listened to Darren, as this was a little disappointing. Although I’m very torn about my feelings towards the film. Through the first half and a bit beyond, I was getting ready to give the film a full 5 stars. It’s a staggeringly beautiful film. The minimalist pastel art style is gorgeous, but there’s more to it than that. The film is incredibly good at capturing the joys and beauty of life. The scenes of Kaguya out in the forest or enjoying simple pleasures at home are perfectly captured through the design, the animation, the music, everything. The film is all about appreciating life in its purest forms and this message is effortlessly portrayed without resorting to sentimentality.
However, this brings about the film’s main stumbling block. It’s message is very clear and simple, but the film runs for an epic 137 minutes which feels far too long for what it’s trying to say and do. In the second half, as the suitors start to appear, the plot expands a little, but never quite enough to justify the running time.
Also, I found the film’s final act weaker than the rest of the film. There’s a surprise revelation about half an hour before the end which is the main culprit. Takahata’s intention is clear as the revelation steers the film towards what, on paper, is the natural conclusion of such a film. However, the ‘twist’ is clunkily introduced out of nowhere with a line of dialogue causing the film to veer off in a new direction. The finale, whilst unusual and magical, didn’t settle with me either after the subtle beauty that came before and it didn’t move me as much at it probably should have.
So it pains me to knock a star or so from my rating of the film as so much of it is stunningly well made. It’s just a shame it’s too drawn out and stumbles in its conclusion.
The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya is out on 13th July in the UK on DVD as well as dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Studiocanal. Both the English dubbed and original Japanese languages are available on the discs. I watched the Japanese version on Blu-Ray and it looked and sounded magnificent. Disappointingly there aren’t many special features though, just a ‘Film Completion Announcement’ and some trailers and TV spots. There’s a Collector’s Edition available, but rather than any supplementary material on the discs, you get a nice set of art cards.