The story of a woodcutter, his wife and the tiny girl they find in a shoot of bamboo
“Heaven must have sent her to me as a blessing”
Disney is practically king of adapting fairy tales as animated features. From Perrault, to Grimm, and Anderson they’ve been taking generations-old stories and turning them into their own classics for almost a hundred years. It’s a tried and true process that almost always pays off. So how does Studio Ghibli’s fairy tale adaptation go?
The Tale of Princess Kaguya starts, like most good fairytales, with a woodcutter (Takeo Chii), who discovers a small girl within a glowing shoot of bamboo. He takes her home to his wife (Nobuko Miyamoto) and they decide to adopt her. Adapting well to life in the village, she begins to grow at an astounding rate. The local kids marvel at this, including Sutemaru (Kengo Kora), an older boy who grows close to her.
One day, the bamboo cutter comes across gold and silks in the same bamboo grove, and decides this meant she was meant to be royalty, and moves the family to the city, where he buys them a large house, staff and titles. Princess, now given the formal name of Princess Kaguya, cannot adjust, however, and rebels. She sends potential suitors to find impossible items to prove their love. She constantly ignores the rules set out by her overbearing governess Sagami (Atsuko Takahata), and wants only to return to the simple life she once knew.
The movie is based on the folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a thousand year old story that Kaguya faithfully retells. You don’t even need to know this is an adaptation; the plot and visual direction this movie takes is more than enough to inform you. Studio Ghibli’s usual fantasy films tend to be big, sprawling affairs. And even the lower-key fantasies like Cat Returns and Spirited Away have booming, exciting climaxes. Kaguya is a lot more understated and personal, and yeah there are moon-men later on, but throughout it all, it undercuts its own fantasy roots to give us a story that, at its core, is about a little girl who struggles with her own environment.
There’s a strong focus on the characters over anything else, which is a strong point. The bamboo cutter is one of the more interesting ones; as his turn from humble worker to wealthy lord is out-of-nowhere yet still in character. Everything he does is for his daughter, and it still comes through even when he berates Kaguya for not behaving “properly”. Deep down he’s as confused in this new world as everyone else is. The governess is fun, as well, and supposedly played to be antagonistic, but it’s hard not to sympathise with her when all she’s doing is her job. Writers Isao Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi flesh out their world nicely with a tonne of bit-part characters, each with a unique identity.
The English dub voices aren’t as good as the Japanese original, which is rare for the Optimum/Disney releases of the movie. It’s not that they’re bad, but they don’t have a lot of life in them. James Caan’s woodcutter mumbles throughout, and everyone else is pretty forgettable. Kaguya’s suitors have a weird range of voice actors from John Cho, Beau Bridges and, most bafflingly of all, Oliver Platt. Essentially, if you don’t mind the subtitles (and you’re on The Asian Cinema Critic, so I imagine that to be the case), chuck on the original Japanese.
But the real draw of the movie is its artistic style. Filled with soft pastels and watercolours, it’s a completely different look to what we’ve come to expect from Ghibli. The movie takes visual inspiration from sumi-e paintings, to further emphasise its folktale origin, giving us this gorgeous animation that’s all inks and paint. Much like his previous movie for Studio Ghibli – My Neighbours the Yamadas – writer-director Isao Takahata gives us something new and visually fresh. It’s a style that partners perfectly with the story, and on top of that is gorgeous to watch.
To summarise, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a beautiful film, in a lot of ways. From the art, to the subtle and human story, you’re bound to be enthralled by it from start to finish.
Verdict: One of Ghibli’s finest to date, Kaguya is a timeless, visually stunning gem
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Rating’s System
Overall entertainment: 10/10
Moral of the story: … I’m not entirely sure
Confusing voice choices: Several
Amount of flak I’ll get for calling Buddha a moon-man: Lots, maybe?
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
Also known as: かぐや姫の物語 (Kaguya-hime no Monogatari)
Director: Isao Takahata
Writers: Isao Takahata, Riko Sakaguchi
Princess Kaguya – Aki Asakura
The Bamboo Cutter – Takeo Chii
The Bamboo Cutter’s Wife – Nobuko Miyamoto
Sutemaru – Kengo Kora
Lady Sagami – Atsuko Takahata
Me no Warawa – Tomoko Tabata
Inbe no Akita – Tatekawa Shinosuke
Prince Ishitsukiri – Takaya Kamikawa
Lord Minister of the Right Abe – Hikaru Ijuin
Counselor Otomo – Ryudo Uzaki
The Mikado – Nakamura Shichinosuke II
Prince Kuramochi – Isao Hashizume
Counselor Isonokami – Tamaki Kojo
Princess Kaguya – Chloë Grace Moretz
The Bamboo Cutter – James Caan
The Bamboo Cutter’s Wife – Mary Steenburgen
Sutemaru – Darren Criss
Lady Sagami – Lucy Liu
Me no Warawa – Hynden Walch
Inbe no Akita – George Segal
Prince Ishitsukiri – James Marsden
Lord Minister of the Right Abe – Oliver Platt
Counselor Otomo – Daniel Dae Kim
The Mikado – Dean Cain
Prince Kuramochi – Beau Bridges
Counselor Isonokami – John Cho