The Tale of the Princess Kaguya screens for a four-week run at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center from December 5th through the 30th. Click here for showtimes.
Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is an apologue of life itself. It’s an animated film of resolute specificity yet operates under universal terms, where its titular character undergoes the transformation that comes with age and time. The film is based on a 10th-century Japanese folktale, though Takahata’s adaptation is more contemporary than its origin suggests. For what makes The Tale of the Princess Kaguya successful is in how it pivots its concerns around a situation rather than plot. One can extract genuine human concerns of agency and class within the film’s aggressive artistry. Kaguya translates to “shining light” and, like moths, we are captivated by the beacon of beauty that is Takahata’s compositions.
A childless bamboo cutter discovers an infant girl in the forest, convinced that the child is a gift from heaven. Bringing the newborn to his wife, the two raise the infant as their own, believing that the child’s origin will translate to a divine right to royalty. The child’s infancy is a short one, where she seems to grow in size, stature, and intelligence at an alarming rate. The child roams the forestry and befriends many of the local villagers. Takahata captures their exploits with such naturalistic grace that one forgets they are watching an animated film. It recalls Malick in its subtle movements, where the slightest gesture carries cosmic significance. Through these early sequences, Takahata aspires to convey the warmth and vitality of nature - wind howling, children chasing pheasant, and the birds, bugs, and beasts.
Yet the film leaves the confines of its forestry for that of structured society. It’s here where the child is given a name - Kaguya - but it’s also here where she is stripped of a sense of agency. She can no longer be herself in this society, forced to abide by convention and traditional standards of beauty. Vitality is drained from her resolve, as she is expected to behave as a noblewoman. In the tradition of hikimayu, oshiroi, and ohaguro, Kaguya’s eyebrows are plucked, skin powdered white, and teeth smeared black. In the film’s most heart-wrenching yet exquisite sequences, we see the former bamboo cutter (now corrupt by the opulence of privileged society) mingle with potential suitors for Kaguya. Kaguya, in a separate room, overhears their slanderous and demeaning comments. She storms out and returns to the forest. It’s an unforgettable visual: the world that Takahata composes collapses as Kaguya’s humanistic spirit is bruised beyond repair, effectively unfolding into itself. The following scene sees Kaguya submit to society’s unbending norms.
Takahata’s visual technique differs from his contemporaries in that he embraces imperfection as a tool for thematic cohesion. It is important for a scene, such as the aforementioned one, to stand out in the film as it expresses an idea rather than reproducing an experience. Kaguya’s mounting stress and alienation need not be uttered or conveyed through conventional means. It’s a scene of such personal affect, where objectification is realized as the literal disintegration of the human body and spirit. In this, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is companion piece to Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. The two pieces probe two women’s attempt to integrate themselves within society, lured by the warmth of the human spirit yet punished by its hegemony. Under the Skin probes the present and future, Kaguya the past, yet their findings remain bleak.
In my adoration for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya I fear that I may have highlighted only its ugly observations of the human condition. This is a sad film, to be sure, but it is also an enchanting and bravely human one. The film’s folk origins provoke a perpetual grin, where Takahata’s observations on the absurdity of class are equal parts grisly and delightfully humorous. And it’s not as if this film lingers on such oppressive concepts ad nauseum. Rather, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya supplicates its audience to find their own happiness and make it beautiful to live.