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.


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