2001 : A Space Odyssey, Animation, Cinema, Coraline, DVD, Film, Foreign Film, HMV, Howl's Moving Castle, Movie Review, My Neighbour Totoro, Ponyo, Spirited Away, Studio Ghibli, The Lego Movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Oscars, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Tim Burton, World Cinema
It’s not every day that I go to a cinema to watch a foreign film, in fact, this is only the second occasion on which I’ve done so. As a general rule I like to spend my time watching the events on screen, rather than craning my head down to read a whole bunch of subtitles. However, I made an exception for “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”, because I adore the Studio Ghibli films I’ve seen, with five of them finding their way into my DVD collection. It’s hard not to fall in love with movies like “My Neighbour Totoro” and “Spirited Away”, because they are so quirky and surreal, but they also have underlying themes and veiled messages which are genuinely beautiful.
Nevertheless, I was very disappointed when I sat through a 137 minute movie, only for it to go absolutely nowhere. “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” begins in a rural forest area and ends in a mansion in the capital, so technically it does go somewhere, but the progression of the characters and the story are far from enthralling. I suspect that this is partly because of a difference in expectations when it comes to Japanese animated films and Western animated films, and I respect the cultural differences which have delighted me in the past. In this film you see a child being breast fed and it isn’t treat with any caution, there’s no stigma attached to it, which is admirable and made me smile, because no Western studio would have the balls to show something as natural as that in a universally rated movie. However, when the film itself doesn’t live up to expectations and is both boring and predictable, these differing standards become something novel rather than worthwhile, distracting you from the fact that the film itself was a disappointment.
The film is about the titular character, and it really is what it says on the tin. It’s a story about a girl sent from the Heavens to a humble bamboo cutter, and it chronicles her life as she is presented with a new setting and the challenges this brings. It’s nothing special in terms of the story, so you’re going to have to look deeper in order to like this movie – a lot deeper. I genuinely wanted to like this movie, and I have spent a lot of time over-analysing it since I left the cinema in order to find something meaningful to cling onto, but nothing I’ve come up with so far has improved my opinion of it.
(SPOILER ALERT) The film opens with the princess being found by the bamboo cutter, as she sprouts from the ground in a plum tree which is shining, as though sent from Heaven itself. The bamboo cutter takes the tiny princess home, where she transforms into a human baby and grows up at a slightly accelerated rate. Because of the nature of this event and what follows, the bamboo cutter believes that the Heavens want this child to have the life of a princess, and with gold which appears in much the same way as the child did, he sets about creating that life for her. They go into the city, shenanigans occur, and ultimately the girl ends up back on the moon. Yes, you read that right – THE MOON! The ending almost seemed as though it was paying homage to “2001 : A Space Odyssey” and has to be seen to be believed.
Despite how ridiculous this sounds, it did seem to be giving some kind of commentary on human existence, because the princess is forced to live a life which she didn’t choose; a life filled with emotions that she can’t control and decisions made for her time and time again. She wants to ‘really live’, but sadly that choice isn’t afforded to her. I’m sure many would agree that we feel this way about our existence from time to time, because we’re thrust into the world without any real direction, and often feel let down by the path we choose.
Where things get to their peak in terms of weirdness is when the princess reveals that she must return to the moon, as her heart called out to it and received an answer. This genuinely comes out of nowhere and is downright silly when it’s first announced, so much so that I think I actually shook my head in disbelief – I couldn’t believe that I’d been watching the film for so long and waiting for things to get going, just for that to be the big payoff. However, this is also the moment at which I think the film might actually have something meaningful to say, beyond the generic ‘being made to do what you don’t want to is bad’.
When the princess is talking about how she feels about returning to the moon she explains that she isn’t ready to go and that she doesn’t want to, and makes many other miserable exclamations that you’d expect from a person awaiting death. I think that what the princess was going through was akin to death, and that the film itself was basically a story about life – youthful innocence dissolves into disenchanted adulthood and ultimately death – did I mention that this really isn’t a very pleasant watch? The princess is one with nature at the start of the film, she’s an explorer going where she wants and doing what she wants, everything is new and she adores the world around her. But as the movie progresses and the princess gets older, she has to deal with the responsibilities that life places on her, and the constraints of external expectations choking her every day, effectively acting as a noose around her neck which eventually ends her life on earth. It’s bleak, but it’s there; the struggles she faces due to her life in the city are what cause her heart to call out to the moon, which in turn rids her of her ties to this planet.
When she does leave, in a bizarre cloud riding scene, things take a terrifyingly dark turn which genuinely unsettled me. Just like in death, leaving this earth with the moon people means losing all your memories and the pain of this world, and this is again forced on the princess. It isn’t a choice to leave, she doesn’t get a say. One minute she’s saying her goodbyes, the next it’s over, which is sadly how life goes. That’s what I took from the film – a depressing and downbeat ode to the futility of existence. Put that on the DVD cover and sell it to a universal audience!
You could of course take a number of things from this film, you could see an environmental message rearing its all too familiar head, you could believe that there was a message about childhood in there and about how life should really be lived (which I definitely do see), or you could see a message about wealth and its adverse effect on people’s lives. The princess was happy with her lot when she had nothing and was living off the land, but found her life was hollow when it was confined to a mansion filled with expensive objects and devoted servants. If you can take these things from the film then I think that you might like it for what it’s worth, but I still think that films should be enjoyable to watch, and this film falls at that crucial hurdle.
Despite the fact that I really didn’t like this film, I have to admit that it was visually gorgeous; it reminded me of a better time when animation was about hand drawn beauty rather than computer generated imagery, and initially it was a feast for my eyes. However, the impressive art style and stunning aesthetics don’t save “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” from being a middle of the road piece of cinema. The effect that it has on you soon wears off, as the story bores you to tears, and you prepare yourself for a swift exit to the nearest toilet.
The voice acting was actually quite good, or at least I think it was. It is slightly harder to appraise voice acting when it’s in a language that you’re unfamiliar with, because you don’t know if the delivery is consistent, or how it needs to be for a particular piece of dialogue. Nevertheless, with a rudimentary understanding of Japanese in hand I think that I can give it a well-deserved thumbs up. The character’s sounded sad when they looked sad, angry when they looked angry, and in general had a level of emotion which was extremely raw. If the movie itself had been stronger I think the voice acting would’ve generated a really emotional response from me and other members of the audience, because when certain characters are in tears or just very upset their despair sounds so genuine, which is something you just don’t get from Western voice acting. Animated films are in effect children’s films in Western culture, at least that’s how it is in the majority of cases, which is probably why people are so affectionate over the outliers like Tim Burton’s masterpiece “Coraline”, or “The Nightmare Before Christmas”.
“The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is a disappointing film. Although it has some positive aspects, such as the art style and the voice acting, that doesn’t make it worth watching, and it definitely doesn’t make it worthy of its Oscar nomination when you consider that “The Lego Movie” missed out. This film is excessively long, painfully dull, and lacks any of the charm that makes other Studio Ghibli films so damn fantastic. There’s no childlike whimsy or interesting creatures to be found in this movie, just a bleak world-view and a depressing conclusion. If you want to educate yourself on world cinema go to HMV and find the section, I’m sure you’ll find something more interesting than this.