Reviews

May 5, 2017
gwern (All reviews)
_The Tale of the Princess Kaguya_ is the best known Japanese fairy tale: a beautiful child is found inside a bamboo plant; she is raised into a princess, attracting the attention of noble suitors, who fail the tasks she sets them, eventually the emperor himself takes an interest in her; finally, she returns to the Moon from whence she came, having either been exiled for a crime or hidden on Earth during a lunar war for her safety. What can Isao Takahata bring to it, his last film, one which took so many years to create, experiencing the most protracted development-hell of any Ghibli movie? Much, and it is worth rewatching. (I do not know if _The Tale of the Princess Kaguya_, likely Takahata's last, is the best Ghibli film ever, but it is far superior to Miyazaki's last film, _The Wind Rises_.)

First, the animation is stunning. It is in a sort of hand-crafted moving watercolor. I am reminded of my reactions to watching _Redline_: every scene leaves me rapt, feeling that nothing like this may ever be created again. The labors that went into this movie show in every frame: no studio has as much money or prestige as Studio Ghibli (which is gradually ceasing animation), the animation industry conversion to computerized processes is long over, and it may never be possible to pay enough Japanese animators poorly enough to afford such luxuries in the future.

What did Takahata mean by it? Takahata himself is one of the enigmas of Ghibli: a Marxist while young, infinitely respected by his junior Miyazaki (who he also towers over physically, we see in _The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness_), but more obscure. We know _The Grave of Fireflies_ for its searing sorrow; _Pompoko_ is considered a comedy despite the disturbing undercurrents of group suicide and the near-extinction of the tanuki; but why the tale of Princess Kaguya, written by the Heian nobility about themselves, which hardly seems like a promising topic for Studio Ghibli, much less Takahata?

A close watch makes clear a cyclical pattern: built into the original story's parody/criticism of the nobility, Takahata extends it into a deeper critique of the aristocracy and social striving and the nihilism of Buddhism. Her father takes the heaven-sent gold and kimonos, and, well-intentioned, becomes convinced that Kaguya's life must be uprooted and destroyed because Heaven demands she become a princess, slowly forgetting his original goal and focusing on social advancement; Kaguya delights in the beautiful kimonos and wardrobes she is given but they become a burden as she is forbidden to play or act like a child (or human) or have pets; she is taught to write and be educated, but forbidden from drawing or cartooning; she is forced to engage in eyebrow plucking and teeth blackening (the latter famously invented to hide an empress's decayed teeth and then became tradition) to meet arbitrary social standards; her popularity renders her unable to go out to see cherry blossoms; a party supposedly in her honor turns out to merely be an occasion for drunkenness and insults; all of this is merely to feed the greed of the nobility for women they have hardly seen, and her ultimate reward for satisfying her father's ambitions is to become subject the emperor's assumption he can rape any women he pleases (in one particularly ugly incident related in Keene's _Seeds in the Heart_, the emperor complains to a father that raping his daughter wasn't as enjoyable as he hoped because she didn't resist enough).
Moving to the capital, despite granting her access to high culture and beautiful clothes and gardens and parties, renders her miserable by coming with the distortions of rank and hierarchy and inbred court customs.

At the party scene, in one of the most striking sequences, Kaguya flees in a rage through the monochrome night back to her old home which she pines for; the mountain and forest are dead, but a charcoal maker, who tells her that life will return; vanishing, the ragged Kaguya appears to collapse in the snow, alone, waking up back at the party. At the end, she meets her childhood friend, now a grown adult, and confesses her love to him, saying it's too late for them to live happily together; together, they jump off a cliff and fly across the countryside, invisible, until Kaguya is pilled to the Moon by an inexorable force, but again she is back at the capital. What do these sequences imply? As so often in Takahata's movies (_Grave of the Fireflies_, _Pom-poko_), suicide makes an appearance: these are two possible rejection reactions, disappearing and dying as a penniless beggar, and a love-suicide - both possible futures are, however, futile. In the first, leaving her role in human society renders her an outcast without any position, to die alone of exposure; and in the second, a death pact solves nothing, merely killing her friend/would-be lover and returning her to the Moon quicker. Finally, she resolves to commit suicide if she must become the Emperor's woman.

"People will have their miracles, their stories, their heroes and heroines and saints and martyrs and divinities to exercise their gifts of affection, admiration, wonder, and worship, and their Judases and devils to enable them to be angry and yet feel that they do well to be angry. Every one of these legends is the common heritage of the human race; and there is only one inexorable condition attached to their healthy enjoyment, which is that no one shall believe them literally. The reading of stories and delighting in them made Don Quixote a gentleman: the believing them literally made him a madman who slew lambs instead of feeding them."

Beautiful clothes should be something to rejoice in; parties should be occasions for fun and festivity; young children should be able to play freely and have pets; one should choose freely one's husband; one should live a long life before dying; all of these things should be blessings, and not curses.

In the end, Kaguya rejects her mortal life, and the Moon's Buddha (in full Indian regalia & retinue, to make it impossible to miss the point) inexorably returns to take her back to the Moon; only then does she remember her life in the Moon and yearning after mortal life's joys and sorrows amidst the peace of the grave of the Moon. She could remain on Earth only so long as she desired to. Too late does she accept her life as a whole, too late does she yearn to remain. ("You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.")

"That the pleasure arising to man / from contact with sensible objects, / is to be relinquished because accompanied by pain— / such is the reasoning of fools. / The kernels of the paddy, rich with finest white grains, / What man, seeking his own true interest, / would fling them away / because of a covering of husk and dust?"

The feeling one is left with is Fujiwara no Teika's _yugen_: a mysterious feeling of depth. Kaguya arrives in mystery, walks in beauty, and departs in mystery. Was it a war, or poetic punishment? Takahata avoids ever explicitly choosing, leaving the viewer in doubt and uncertainty. In the end, there is only silence; in the end, there is only the sublime; in the end, there is only life throughout spring, summer, fall, winter, with birds, bugs, beasts, grass, trees, flowers...