So Crazy Japanese Folklore: Kaguya-hime no Monogatari

Kaguya Hime no Monogatari is a very long film, based on an old Japanese story, with several aspects that make it impossible to export anywhere else in the world. It’s quite a good film, and looks gorgeous, but it’ll be difficult to show to many people when it drops on home video. But this is kind of director Takahata Isao’s thing, right? That’s why they don’t let him in the director’s chair much, I guess.

So as not to bore by recounting the story that can just be read on the Wikipedia entry linked above, let’s start with Kaguya-hime‘s visuals: They’re fantastic, and quite unique. As seen in one of the film’s more bold trailers (the first one I saw), Kaguya-hime employs a very distinctive sketchy style of artwork. This style is very difficult to animate, but Ghibli’s group of competent and talented artists manages to keep the aesthetic rock-solid throughout the entirety of the film. Never are there any points where it feels like the film’s cutting corners with its aesthetic or the animation–it constantly feels as if you’re watching a moving water-color painting, and everything on-screen is active.

The film’s character designs are also unique in that they employ a design aesthetic distinctive of 1960s manga, with a slight touch of modern flare. It’s very difficult to describe, but there are a lot of influences at work. However, despite this mix, nothing particularly feels out of place or strange–the variety spices things up. Every character has a distinct look and feel to them, giving the film a satisfying visual diversity, as well as adequately telling the audience who the characters are through their designs. I particularly thought that Kaguya’s suitors’ designs were quite funny, as well as the design for her somewhat cat-faced attendant, and her adoptive father is simply a very cute old man. While the film’s sketchy artwork mixed with its classic designs don’t necessarily look like artwork harking from the 10th century from which this story came, these aesthetic choices that look “old” effectively take the viewer back to an older time, creating an appropriate atmosphere with its visuals for the story to unfold in. And that’s one of the main draws–the atmosphere.

On a broader level, another main draw of the film is its presentation: The bold and effective framing of shots that tell you everything you need to know, the simple and distinct musical score that only comes in when it needs to, and the easy-to-understand cartoonish expressions of the characters. In short, it’s a masterful use of simple visual and audial language that perfectly compliments the film’s simple fairy tale story, chock-full of nonsensical magical occurrences, princesses, suitors, and other supernatural happenings.

On the subject of these supernatural happenings, the depiction of them is one of the film’s strong points. One of big part of the film is Kaguya’s accelerated growth. Her initial transformation from a tiny doll found in a bamboo shoot to a crying baby is shown in a very matter-of-fact way, as is her subsequent growth, and all the other instances of supernatural weirdness in the film, making these events come off as rather convincing. However, this is most likely basics for a director like Takahata who knows better than to put a kookie supernatural glow or something similar on top of these sorts of things.

Much like many other Ghibli films, Kaguya-hime has an amicable light tone with a fun sense of slapstick and visual humor to carry the tale along briskly. Once again, this light tone is carried along heavily by the visuals, but at the same time the movie uses this same expressive style to bring to life the story’s serious moments, be them quiet, tense, or intense. It’s quite versatile.

Like any other Ghibli movie, the cast is composed of many real-life actors. Asakura Aki’s Kaguya is as versatile as the film–energetic, filled with infinite fascination and enthusiasm, but deadly mature and serious when the occasion calls for it. Other stand-out performances include Chii Takeo’s spirited performance as Kaguya’s well-meaning but clueless father, who unfortunately died before the film was completed.

I alluded to this earlier, but more than the content of the story or the characters, the presentation makes this movie. Had the movie looked more conventional, it would have lost a lot of its strength. Seeing as the story itself is a simple fairy tale, presentational aspects like visuals, music, and acting go a long way into breathing life into the film, and making it compelling.

So, what’s wrong with it? Not much, but it’s a little long at 137 minutes, and the ending may put off some people not familiar with the conventions of Japanese folklore, if some of the nudity and stuff like that didn’t put them off already. That said, to either an art house crowd or a crowd that likes Japanese culture, I think this film should go over well. Just think about who you show it to, I guess.

Takahata just turned 78-years-old a few months ago, and this is his first film in fourteen years. Does he have another one in him? I hope so, but Kaguya-Hime isn’t really a bad place to stop.

3 thoughts on “So Crazy Japanese Folklore: Kaguya-hime no Monogatari

  1. This sounds cool as hell. I’m a Takahata fan, so I really want to see this. That trailer is really stupid, though.

    Also, Happy New Year!

  2. Oh, nice, someone besides The Japan Times wrote about this in English. Thanks!

    As far as I’m concerned, Kaguya-hime‘s the best thing that’s ever come out of Studio Ghibli. I could go on and on and on about why it’s so great (not an idle threat—my e-mail outbox has over 15,000 words to various college/film club friends extolling the myriad virtues of the work), but I think the cornerstone of the awe with which Takahata’s achievement fills me is his astonishing success in using the very familiarity of his tale to create powerful emotional resonances… which is one reason the film is almost unsalable outside Japan. You’re right that Kaguya-hime‘s quite funny at times, but that humor is shot through with the awful knowledge that Kaguya’s mortal sojourn will be over all too soon. This is most apparent in my favorite sequence, during which the neighborhood children call the toddling youngster by their name (“タケノコ! タケノコ!”) while her adoptive [grand]father battles for her affections with his name (“ヒメ! おいで! ヒメ! おいで!”). The sight is of course humorous in that Yojimbo confrontation sort of way, not to mention rustically touching, but latent in Kaguya’s (or Takenoko’s, or Hime’s) childish eagerness to run to those who call her name is the more tragic reality that this call of the World is the very call she must ultimately abandon. It’s a most appropriate evocation of 物の哀れ given that the film is set in the same era as Genji’s adventures (through his readings of which Motoori Norinaga developed the aesthetic conceit).

    Kaguya-hime also earns a place in the supreme anime pantheon by, to quickly list off a few small items, managing the seemingly impossible task of creating a “Buddhist blasphemy” (in which desire, as carefully distinguished from covetousness, becomes the grounds of freedom, and separation from the cycle of rebirth—”まわれ! まわれ! まわれよ! 水車まわれ!”—is not liberation but despair); daring to allow a few simple brushstrokes to speak where lesser directors would summon forth an army of eye-popping details; transforming an (inevitably) “unenlightened” fairytale into a powerful Feminist statement without the slightest damage to its essence and without a hint of preachiness, pedantry, or pomp; creating an emotionally devastating (at the diegetic level) yet paradoxically joyful (at the apologal level) conclusion without ever resorting to impassioned monologues or emotional manipulation (and man oh man, tell me the sequence in which Kaguya-hime destroys her own garden, her flying black hair visually giving wings to a liberating-yet-despairing Angel of Death, didn’t give you the cold chills); and of course for making me believe once again that watching all this anime might be worth it.

    Also, there seems to be an odd omission in this article. You got through the whole review without mentioning that this is the single best movie ever made.

    Anyway, the end result is that I now foster a hopeless desire to make everyone in the world watch the film (again, realistically speaking the audience that will even give this a chance outside of Japan is almost laughably minuscule) and an equally frustrated resentment towards The Wind Rises. I liked Kaze Tachinu a lot better than most people, but the overwhelming mastery of his medium Takahata demonstrates in Kaguya-hime frankly makes Miyazaki’s production look like the work of a fumbling first-timer. The fact that Miyazaki’s name is earning his movie all the attention while not even the Japanese audience will go to see Kaguya-hime causes me to seethe with a hopeless rage. This movie needs to win all the awards, damnit!

    Thanks again for reassuring me that someone else saw the movie and liked it!

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