Monday, October 20, 2014

Review: "The Tale of Princess Kaguya"

Director: Isao Takahata
Runtime: 137 minutes

There's a reason why certain tales are timeless. No matter the variations and adaptations, core cultural truths stand at the center of these stories that are passed down, in some form of another, from generation to generation. Having seen director Isao Takahata's The Tale of Princess Kaguya, adapted from The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, one of Japan's most famous folktales. Whether you're lucky enough to see the film with its original Japanese voice cast, or in its English dub, one thing is clear: Takahata's film is a quiet gem in any language, despite the details that may or may not have been lost in translation.

Though produced by animation juggernaut Studio Ghibli, Takahata's film is much more sedate than the studio's most famous works (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away). A humble bamboo farmer (James Caan) discovers a small, fairy-like child in the woods. He takes it to his wife (Mary Steenburgen), only for the living figurine to morph into a human infant. A human infant that matures at a truly alarming rate. As the little girl (eventually voiced by Chloe Grace Moretz) comes of age and whispers of her beauty spread, the farmer decides that his Princess (his choice of nickname) deserves a life of royalty. And it seems like the gods agree. Bamboo stalks in the forrest begin coughing up gold, silk, and robes far outside of the farmer's humble country lifestyle. Next on the agenda? Establishing Princess as part of the nouveau riche in the big city.

What seems like a set up for a standard morality tale about society's corrosive love of money eventually turns out to be more fantastical and more complex. However, it's the narrative's more straightforward passages that wind up making a greater impact. Kaguya's struggle to adapt to the expectations of high society are where Takahata's storytelling is at its best. The princess' interactions with the haughty Lady Sagami (Lucy Liu), her tutor on the matter of all things lady like, are perfectly observed moments charting Kaguya's struggle to fit into the world her parents have dragged her into. 

Princess Kaguya's heroine is, at her core, a girl who never has the chance to really define herself. Her father engages a group of local kids in a shouting match over what to name her during infancy (their choice: Little Bamboo, which doesn't give off the spoiled brat vibe). Then, it's up to Sagami to mold her into a proper lady, which includes fun activities like plucking out your eyebrows, dying your teeth black, and moving almost exclusively by shuffling your knees. The facade of nobility is beautiful, but it's also quite a burden to maintain.

Takahata's interpretation of the story, however, is far more dynamic than the restrictive society he depicts (albeit in its own quiet way). This begins with Takahata's visualization of the story. Like France's Ernest & Celestine, Princess Kaguya opts for an ink and water color aesthetic rather than immaculate details. Without going overboard, this approach lends an authentic touch to a story so deeply rooted in Japan's cultural heritage. 

All of Princess Kaguya's images are beautiful, but the emphasis on motion and detail varies to accommodate different locations and mindsets. One of the film's most thrilling moments comes when, in a moment of panic, Kaguya flees her sprawling new home during a coming out party for local nobility. Running frantically though the dark woods, the brushstroke lines start to twist and swirl, almost threatening to swallow Kaguya up whole. It's frantic, and even a bit jarring, but Takahata and his animators never go too far. In its most formal and daring compositions, Princess Kaguya is as much a work of art as one of the scrolls that the title character recklessly unfurls, much to Lady Sagami's horror. Longtime Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi does a beautiful job backing up the imagery with musical motifs that range from delicate piano solos to soaring orchestral swells.

And while I dearly wish I could have seen the film with its original Japanese cast, the American roster is no slouch. Moretz, known for sassy, wise-beyond-her-years characters, creates a believably innocent and carefree Kaguya. Caan and Steenburgen, though occasionally burdened with repetitive dialogue work well as the adoptive parents, and Liu and the rest of the actors tasked with playing Japan's nobles have fun puffing out their chests without becoming unbearable.

Only when the fantastical elements make their definite return to the story does Princess Kaguya start to lose a bit of its focus. The reintroduction of Kaguya's origins comes a bit suddenly on the heels of the main rags to riches story, and desperately needs more time. Instead, there's a bunch of exposition that Kaguya throws at her parents, with little time for any of it to really stick. Princess Kaguya captures its heroine's more realistic developments so seamlessly. The high fantasy elements that arrive during the finale almost feel unwanted. It's too much of a turn around to really care about, when the film has a much more compelling story of Kaguya reconnecting with her humble roots.

Rather than end its moving story in a way that effectively ties into Kaguya's growth, one is left a bit flummoxed by the amount of heavy mythology doled out only minutes before it becomes extremely important. The finale, touching as it is, loses something from such an abrupt transition. Takahata's film is beautiful to behold, but it ends by stumbling across in bewildering exhaustion, rather than in a triumphant sprint.

Grade: B+

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