The Tale of Princess Kaguya Review: A perfect showing of Isao Takahata’s legendary talents
Editor’s Note: This review is based off of the English dub
The films of legendary director Isao Takahata are always filled with his incredible ambition to deliver character-driven stories that are beautifully animate and evoke genuine emotion – and there’s no film that shows this better than his last film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya.
The film, based on the anonymous literary tale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, follows a young girl (voiced by Chloe Grace Mortez) that a bamboo cutter (voiced by James Caan finds in a glowing bamboo shoot. After deciding to raise the girl with his wife (voiced by Mary Steenburgen) as if she were their own daughter, the bamboo cutter believes that their young daughter is meant to have a divine life because of the gold and fine fabric he receives from the same glowing bamboo shoots. Thus, the bamboo cutter takes his family away from their poor village and moves them into the more affluent capital to give his daughter, who eventually is given the name Kaguya, the royal life that he believes will make her happy. However, Kaguya isn’t interested in being a princess and as time passes and undesired suitors attempt to take her hand in marriage, she yearns to return home and find her own happiness.
It’s impossible to talk about Princess Kaguya without talking about the beautifully unique animation that make watching the film like seeing a painting come to life. By animating the film using watercolors and strong charcoal strokes make the characters more defined and environments a visual wonder. I’ve never seen a film be so vibrant and strong through its animation and it’s so beautiful with how emotions and movement are shown. Takahata is never the kind of director that tries to be ordinary in the way he tells he stories and animates his films and Kaguya is a perfect showing of that.
Another key component to a great Takahata film is his character-driven storytelling, and Princess Kaguya is one of his finest stories he’s ever told. Kaguya’s story is truly timeless in its telling of a young princess searching for her independence and freedom in a world that doesn’t allow her to because of its traditions. She’s never able to make her own choices about who or if she wants to marry, how she acts, or even if she wants to be in the capital and be a princess. There’s actually a complex story being told about men oppressing and controlling a woman’s fate in this culture and time that never villainizes anyone or points direct blame. Even for times when the bamboo cutter is forcing Kaguya to comply with Lady Sagami’s (voiced by Lucy Lui) direction to being a pristine princess or having her meet possible suitors that don’t care for her and basically just want to add her to their collection of wives, there’s a deep genuine love for her as a father and is just doing what he thinks the “divine beings” that gave them to her want for her. It’s even interesting to think if the divine beings sent the gold and fine cloth in order to make Kaguya yearn to return back to their world – adding to the idea of her being controlled by those around her.
All of this is what makes the moments where Kaguya stands up for herself and take charge in her life so empowering and meaningful. The scene of her sending all of the suitors to find the items they been comparing her to is amazing and the scene of her escaping from her naming party is full of raw power that many other films attempt to tap into, but never succeed like this. Mortez elevates all of the Kaguya’s growing desire for freedom with every line she delivers, and the rest of the cast is perfect in making their characters unique. The film’s story holds up excellently and it’s easily become one of my favorites with how it blends a grounded sense of realism with mystical fantasy.
The first and third act definitely fall in line with the whimsical and heartfelt fantasy aspects one would expect with a Studio Ghibli film, while the middle of the film feels very grounded in how it depicts Kaguya’s controlled life as a princess. Personally, the film blends these aspects well – aside from the abrupt turn into fantasy as the film transitions from the second to the third act. Overall, though, what impressed me what the mature tone the film took with how it shows life in Kaguya’s home village as well as her distain for her life as princess waiting to be essentially sold off to an underserving suitor. Matched with the film’s incredible animation, Kaguya’s story soars with the emotion it evokes in every viewer’s heart and how the film still manages to be incredibly timely.
While Takahata might be gone, he managed to make his last film showcase the ambition and sheer storytelling brilliance to make his legacy live on. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is easily one of his best films, as well as Studio Ghibli’s, as its unbelievably gorgeous animation and incredibly impactful story make a timeless animated tale. Truth be told, animated movies just aren’t made like this anymore.