the triumph of Isao Takahata's Princess Kaguya

By Leecie Suyeda

Incredible Beauty!
No child has been tormented by a princess as much as me. The first time I heard the story of Princess Kaguya, I thought it was passable. But I was three. Every time I heard that stiff, emotionless story afterwards I grew more and more annoyed at its opaque nature. Her story tortured me at bedtime, in my Buddhist church, and at school where I was forced to make a giant life sized Princess Kaguya drawing. After a while I wondered if I was going to hear this awful story at my funeral. When I heard Studio Ghibli was making a movie adaptation, I figured I had suffered enough. But some crazy part of me loves watching movies, bad and good alike, and since it is my field I felt duty bound to at least see the movie before I hated it. What happened next was one of the most shocking moments of my life. I was crying and by the end it had restored my faith in animated movies. Isao Takahata took a story I knew too well, that I had never wanted to hear again, and turned it into a moving film.

Takahata has had a rocky career as a director, often over shadowed by Studio Ghibli's prolific genius, Hayao Miyazaki. His best-known film, Grave of the Fireflies, is a brutal story about two war orphans trying to make it in in the aftermath of the firebombing of Tokyo. And by brutal, I mean brutal: Takahata doesn't pull punches. He is never afraid to shy away from reality. In fact, he wholeheartedly embraces it. If Miyazaki directed Grave of the Fireflies, the two orphans would meet some friendly monsters who would help them survive to become stronger adults. But the reality is this: friendly monsters don't exist and orphans in firebombed Tokyo didn't stand much of a chance of survival. Takahata knows that a happy ending would make the movie more bearable, but showing the slow starvation of the two children is more powerful and closer to what actually would have happen. I hated this movie for being sad, good, and ultimately too cruel.

Beauty can be cruel, sometimes too cruel
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is also sad, but in an understandable way that modern audiences can relate to. Takahata takes his gift for reality and applies it to this fantastical fairy tale. He strikes a balance between reality and fantasy rarely achieved in animated films. Where other directors might touch on sadness, disappointment, and death, they don't commit to it the way Takahata does. He loves reality in all its grittiness. But, and this is the important part, the fantastical side of Princess Kaguya reins him in, and doesn't let him get too merciless. The result is a movie that's sincere and portrays Princess Kaguya's emotions in a real way.

Takahata's retelling of Princess Kaguya's story focuses on the feelings of the princess. The fantastical events are no longer the driving interest of the story, but instead Princess Kaguya's feelings drive the action. In a way, it no longer matters that she is magically born from bamboo or whatever nonsensical thing the old fairy tale spun, because that's just life. Things happen to everybody and no one can control how they were born. Whether it’s from bamboo or the old-fashioned way, the point is she didn’t ask for any of it, just as we don’t either. In Takahata’s retelling it’s all about the unpredictability of life.

In the original tale, Princess Kaguya's adoptive father takes her away to live in the capital so she can live like a real princess. But in the movie we get to see her reaction, and that’s where Takahata’s direction really soars. The Princess hides her own feelings, opting to listen to her father and let him define happiness and success for her. Her father is genuinely happy to see his daughter become a noble and so she suppresses her desires out of respect for him. The conflict eventually divides her from her family as she rejects all her royal suitors. Here, Takahata lands on the tough side, refusing to let the situation become cute or fun.

Even the cute resists cute in Takahata
Her lack of honesty and her father's failure to understand her causes Princess Kaguya to wish to escape. That wish is overheard by the people of the moon, who interpret it as a plea for them to take her to the moon, a place where there is no suffering. This gives new meaning to Princess Kaguya's story, as it becomes a metaphor for death and reincarnation. Life is full of suffering and misunderstandings and while there is no pain in the afterlife, Princess Kaguya is still distraught about leaving Earth. She is taken away from her problems, but she is also taken away from the people and places she loved.

Takahata drives home this message with the film's visuals and artistic direction. As animated films utilize technology to become increasingly more realistic, the filmmakers seem to have forgotten animation as an art form instead of a showcase of CG technology. Takahata has argued that animation does not need to be intricately rendered with detailed images, but can also rely on the power of suggestion. He states in an interview, "Rather than depict that as a virtual reality, I thought it would be better to make the drawings simple to encourage the viewer to see what is behind, what is real."

Takahata does not adhere to the traditional methods of animation, and to understand how rare this is you need to remember that the studio responsible for bringing feature length animated movies to mainstream audiences is still the central studio that leads the animation industry today—Disney. It is the longest running and most successful animation studio in history; nearly all animation studios have attempted to copy its success. Even in Japan, most studios adopt a safer, visually familiar look to their films. Takahata throws this practice out the window, as he chooses a look that is more in keeping with his story.

It's obvious by this point that I like this movie's dedication to its message and themes. As vague and obvious as that may sound, it's something missing from a lot of animated films. Morals seem to be slapped on as an afterthought, messily dug up after the directors have their fun with fight scenes and gags. In Big Hero 6, the message of the film is "don't get too absorbed in getting revenge,” but this is difficult to believe when the main characters are a bunch of super powered vigilantes. You can't have the main character repurpose a medical treatment robot into a cool karate fighting one without thinking that revenge might be a smart option. Are you saying that fighting is bad? Or that it's cool? Takahata doesn’t make mistakes like that, because he thinks in such a methodical and clear manner.

Our lives are filled with pain and joy
Takahata makes sure that each choice the Princess makes has great impact. At the end, when she is being taken back to the moon, where there exists no suffering or grief, she gives an impassioned speech about her life on Earth. Although she did experience pain and sadness, she speaks of the beauty of nature and the love she felt for the people she cared for. As she is eventually forced to leave she tearfully looks back, a perfect image for someone about to enter a world of pure happiness. Takahata takes that same sad "death" ending from Grave of the Fireflies, but gives it meaning and reasoning that is much more relatable and believable.

©Leecie Suyeda and The CCA Arts Review

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