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The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Studio Ghibli isn’t perfect. They’ve made some of my very favorite movies over the last twenty years, including classics like “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Lately, I’ve been a little underwhelmed with films like “Arrietty,” “From Up on Poppy Hill,” and “The Wind Rises,” but all three of those are decent movies I just didn’t love.

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is the first Ghibli film since “Kiki’s Delivery Service” that I actively dislike. How in the world did the studio that used to produce such creative, inventive, unexpected movies deliver this tired cliche of a kids’ film? I am scratching my head in disbelief.

A bamboo cutter finds a magical baby in a stalk of bamboo, and takes the child home to his wife, and they adopt her and name her (apparently) Princess. I don’t know about in Japan, but in America, that’s a name you give a dog, not a child. The bamboo cutter returns to the magical bamboo, which yields riches and beautiful silks. He decides that, now that he has money and fine silks, it’s time to move his family to the city and raise Princess like a real princess.

At that point, you can pretty much guess the rest of the film, and you wouldn’t be wrong. The city is stifling, and Princess Kaguya (the name is purchased from a man with an abnormally large face) longs for the simple life of the country. She is taught how to be a lady, but is headstrong and rebellious, always wanting to dance and sing when she’s supposed to sit quietly and practice calligraphy. My gosh, even writing this plot summary, I feel like I’m penning a country song.

“Kaguya” is based on a 10th century Japanese myth, and I guess that should buy you some room to tell the same old story over again (I remember rolling my eyes hard the first time someone told me “Romeo & Juliet” was cliched.) But in that case, you’ve really got to pour creativity and originality into the details of the story, and director Isahao Takahata falls completely flat. Princess Kaguya is the blandest heroine imaginable. This is where the film really gets on my nerves. We are shown our heroine’s “vitality” and “joi de vivre” through scenes of her frolicking with kittens and dancing underneath cherry trees, scenes about as fresh and fun as the guacamole in my fridge.

“Kaguya” is the kind of film that supposedly stands against traditional idealization of women in Japan (women are silent, beautiful, elegant, etc.) but then substitutes other, equally false and impossible idealization (women are playful, adventurous, pure and noble, and love to frolick and dance.)

The film drags on and on. There are suitors, who fall in love with Kaguya without ever seeing or talking to her (a quick conversation might change their minds) but none of them are good enough for her. She sends them on impossible quests, and then reunites with the country boy from her childhood (who apparently has a wife and child?) because of course she does.

Something interesting and unusual starts to happen at the end, explaining Kaguya’s magical origins and semi-tragic end, but by then, it’s too little, too late. This film is too long, too boring, and way too cliched.

To give credit where credit’s due, the animation is really beautiful. It’s minimalist and full of pastels, and there’s creativity in the way the story is drawn. Too bad there’s so little in the way it’s told. “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is beautiful and boring, just like its protagonist.


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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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