The Tale of the Princess Kaguya Review
Folk tales and legends are many and varied throughout the world. Some of them even bear similarities from culture to culture, country to country. But there can surely be no country (or culture) where there are just so many varied forms of mythic stories than the land of the rising sun, Japan. From ancient ghost tales to modern urban myths. From stories about legendary warrior samurai or tragic cat princesses. From mischevious, tiny forest sprites to legends of giant bestial deities, the Japanese, seemingly, have a tale for every occasion. It is one such tale upon which Isao Takahata has based his latest animated masterwork, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
As with most folk tales, the story is a simple one. An elderly bamboo cutter discovers a tiny, living girl in a glowing stalk of bamboo. Naturally, he takes the girl home to his wife and, believing her to be a gift from the heavens, they decide to raise her as their own daughter. They call her Princess and she seems to go through an incredible growth spurt, learning to stand, walk and talk in rapid time. Before long, she is catching up in size with the other local village kids and making good friends, when an incident with a wild pig leads to our introduction to, cool older boy, Sutemaru, who becomes her closest friend in the village.
When the bamboo cutter later finds gold and fine cloth in more glowing bamboo canes, he decides that he must provide his Princess with the opportunity to live a lifestyle befitting garments made from these fine cloths. This means moving from the village to the big city, as staying would mean, "She would only ever be a country girl", according to the bamboo cutter and so, she is forced to leave everything behind.
In the city, the family move into a stately house and Princess comes under the tutelage of a governess, who has been hired to teach her how to be a noble woman. She is reluctant however, believing that life should be more about fun rather than formality, but she tries to go along with the wishes of her parents nonetheless.
Soon, at a naming party celebration where she formally becomes Princess Kaguya, she becomes upset after seeing her father being belittled for their common heritage and peasant background and decides to run away. Kaguya runs back to the mountains where she was raised but finds everyone has gone. With no other choice, she must make the most of her life in the city but complications inevitably arise when it becomes common knowledge of her great beauty and five high-born men, and even the Emperor, begin to vie for her affections.
Only now does the Princess reveals her true nature to her parents and so begins, the real tale of the Princess Kaguya.
Apparently a project long in gestation, Isao Takahata's obvious love for the source material shines through beautifully in this animated masterpiece. Based on the folktale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, Princess Kaguya is a chalk and watercolour painting brought strikingly to life. Reminding me very much of Takahata's previous work, My Neighbours The Yamadas and Raymond Briggs' very own yearly festive treat, The Snowman, the picture is truly a marvel to behold. Simple, fluid lines, unfussy but exquisite animation and a subtle colour palette with occasional vivid foreground hues are the ingredients used to bring this ancient Japanese story to the screen.
Films like this, I think, should really be watched in their native language as, after all, that is the way they were intended to be enjoyed but English dubs, for a good 10-15 years now, have been more than acceptable. Studio Ghibli always use talented performers to voice their English language tracks and Kaguya is no different, featuring Chloe Grace Moretz and James Caan amongst others. The English dub then, is very very good but I still prefer the native track personally, which is wonderfully nuanced and....well....just more fitting.
I actually despair for those who 'don't get' animation or think it's 'just for children' as they really are missing out on a huge chunk of experimental and ambitious film making which nobody should be denied.
Studiocanal brings us The Tale of the Princess Kaguya as a BD/DVD combo pack and the BD, which I have reviewed, is a stunner. Clipping along with an average bitrate of around 20 Mbps, the picture quality delivered is simply jaw dropping. As mentioned above, the colour palette is soft and subtle and it comes across magnificently, with no imperfections, no ugly macro blocking, no ghostly halo's and no noise. One can discern actual brush strokes in the original artwork. It is crisp and clean and there is not a trace of grain to be seen. When the occasional burst of bright colour comes along it really does pop. On a good HD TV set, this is literally like watching someone pass a moving story book before your eyes. Magnificent!
The audio choices are the original Japanese or English dub DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks. Both are of a very high quality with crisp and clear dialogue, on the nose background effects and a lovely musical score by long time Ghibli composer, Joe Hisaishi, which sits perfectly, as always, with the film.
As seems to be the norm for Studio Ghibli discs, the extras leave a little to be desired. There is however, a 40 minute, Film Completion Announcement feature which is basically a press conference with the Japanese cast and crew and TV execs. If you've seen any of these kinds of features before then you'll know what to expect here. Individual speeches, polite nodding, questions and answers and so forth but, being a huge fan of both My Neighbours The Yamadas and Grave of the Fireflies, I loved hearing from Isao Takahata himself. The piece does reveal some interesting little factoids about the film and overall is definitely worth a watch.
Less impressive, at least to me, are Japanese Trailers and TV Spots. One 6 minute trailer and two shorter trailers make up the 10 minutes of trailer action but once I've seen a film, the trailer's useless to me. The TV Spots are, in essence, mini trailers so guess how I feel about them. Go on, guess! A collection of TV advertisements for the film, some with music, some with voice-over and some with dialogue from the film.......go figure?!?
Finally, there is the Studio Ghibli Collection Trailers which are.......oh, you get the picture by now, trailers for various Ghibli movies with, From Up On Poppy Hill receiving particular attention.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya made only a modest amount of money at the box office. In fact it barely recouped half of its production budget in ticket sales, but I'm sure the movie will find an audience among the Ghibli fans now it's come to home video with a fabulous transfer from StudioCanal. A stunningly beautiful telling of an old Japanese folk tale, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya can now be seen and enjoyed by everyone. And, despite the modest selection of extras, it should be.