2015 is the 30th anniversary of the founding of Studio Ghibli and, according to Hayao Miyazaki, it may also be one of its final years as a studio. Because this is one of my favorite films studios and Miyazaki is one of my favorite artists, who’s made some of my favorite films, I’ve decided to go through the history of Studio Ghibli one film at a time.
If you’re looking for the discussions of the previous weeks:
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Grave of the Fireflies
- My Neighbor Totoro
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- Pom Poko
- Whisper of the Heart
- Princess Mononoke
- My Neighbors the Yamadas
- Spirited Away
- The Cat Returns
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- Tales from Earthsea
- The Borrower Arrietty
- From Up on Poppy Hill
- The Wind Rises
This does, however, mean I won’t be discussing Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which was made before the founding of the studio.
I’ll also only be discussing the Japanese audio version of the films, though that doesn’t mean the dubs are bad or not worth seeing. They’re just slightly different. I’ll also be discussing these with the assumption that they’ve been seen by you. So, yes, spoilers are below.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is Isao Takahata’s first film in fourteen years. The first since My Neighbors the Yamadas, which I was not a fan of. As I said months ago, I’m seeing many of these Takahata films for the first time while I write these, and so it’s been a very interesting, albeit perplexing, look through his work.
He begins so powerfully, with Grave of the Fireflies, which some consider to be the greatest war film ever made. Only Yesterday is a beautiful follow up, and then he takes a curious turn with Pom Poko, a film that is both incredibly strange while also being pretty solid. Then there’s the Yamadas, which fits nowhere in this film journey, but finally we come to Princess Kaguya, which remains tricky to place.
Pom Poko is where we first see Takahata really playing with animation styles in his Studio Ghibli films. That film is broken down into three distinct styles, depending on the perspective. The Yamadas has a comic strip style, and now Princess Kaguya feels like animated colored pencils and water colors. It’s also, in certain ways, a mix of his first three Studio Ghibli films. It’s based on the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter from Japanese folklore, but is more concerned with real people than the folktale. This is consistent, in general, with Takahata’s work, like Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday.
But I have issues with the film, even so. It is, more or less, a straight adaptation, with a few small differences. Takahata grounds the story more in reality, and especially the reality of the time period, but it all feels somewhat removed, emotionally.
I think the issue here is that this sticks too closely to the folktale. The fact that Princess Kaguya is still from the moon and will return there feels both odd and random after so much has been done to ground the story in reality. So perhaps it’s an issue of tone, because this film no longer feels like a folktale, but it insists on the fairytale logic.
Folktales are stories that tell us about life. They tell us about ourselves, about humanity. More than that, they’re about cultural identity. I think the folktales succeed most as films when they adapt themselves to our modern identities.
That’s where Disney got so much right. Their versions of Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Mulan work and feel true to us today because they filled it with modern sensibilities.
All those films are about growing up as an outcast, about the superficiality of physical appearance, about choice, and about love conquering all.
For better or worse, all those films are made for a 20th century american audience. That’s what Pixar taps into with their films too. They’re not based on folktales, but they hit those same marks. They tell simple stories that manage to be timeless because they speak to what we believe it means to be human.
Contrast this, for example, with Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, which is very much a fairytale. But Miyazaki throws us into modern concerns. The destruction of war, the helplessness in the face of that destruction. The film does a great deal more than that, of course, but Miyazaki takes a timeless story and makes the modern audience recognise itself there.
Takahata manages to do some of this, and it reminds me of his earlier films. The beginning of the film is very much about common people, and then transitions into a conflict between cultural tradition and personal identity, to an extent. And all of this is great.
I love those scenes. The scenes where the Princess is playing in the woods with the children. Where she sends her suitors on impossible quests and then shows them to be liars when they return.
But this ending, where the moon simply takes her back–it doesn’t sit right. It’s too out of nowhere.
And it works in the folktale because in The Bamboo Cutter she and the Emperor fall in love, so her removal from earth becomes a tragic form of love. The Emperor gains the ability to live forever but doesn’t take it because he sees no point in living long if he can’t share it with his Princess.
It’s a beautiful little story.
But here the love story is a bit more confused. The Emperor is creepy and sexually aggressive, frightening Kaguya to the point that she calls on the moon for help. They’ll come for her at the next full moon, leaving little time left for her.
Her real love is for Sutemaru, who she finds again as an adult, now married with children. They frolic and play and Kaguya’s love of life and the earth is seen, but mostly it’s seen through her love for him.
Which I can buy, okay, but we haven’t seen Sutemaru in about an hour, and the last time we saw him was so brief and resulted in him getting beat up by the people he stole from.
So the story becomes a bit confused, I think. Takahata takes steps to speak to a modern audience, but he does it in what I would say is a somewhat halfhearted way.
He gives us a proletarian take on an aristocratic folktale about love, but he doesn’t lean enough into the concept.
Sure, we see Kaguya reject the aristocracy and the aristocratic life forced on her, but she also gives in for long periods.
The best moments, I think, are when she’s out in the world. We see the joy she has in the natural world. In earth. In people who don’t desire her as an object or a symbol of their own power and magnificence. Because we see her extreme joy in those moments. Being alive on earth is so wondrous and amazing and joyful! But these moments are brief.
I wanted more of that because that’s where the heart of this story is, yeah?
A foreign orphaned girl falls in love with her adopted people and nation, but not with their rulers or the culture of the ruling class.
I think if we had seen her more of those beautiful moments of her interacting with her friends and the natural world, we’d find her return to the moon as terrifying.
But for a lot of the film Kaguya is sort of trapped and confined. She’s often unhappy and her father is unable or unwilling to even acknowledge it. This is also only ever hinted at and never really explored. The fundamental gap between her father and herself. Her mother, their go-between, is largely silent on the subject, despite taking Kaguya’s side.
And then there’s that ending.
Her father tries to defend Kaguya from the people of the moon, but it’s hopeless in the face of the celestial beings. Kaguya begs to be left on earth, to have just one more moment with her parents.
But even still, she’s taken, forgetting earth and her life here, while her parents weep for all they lost.
Of course, we see, finally, Kaguya look back in sorrow at the earth, so far away, and then we fade to black.
So what do we learn from this version of the folktale?
Because life on the moon looks ecstatic and glorious, while her life on earth seemed full of misery.
Is that the significant part? That even despite the sorrow and torment, she chooses earth? Or is it that her choice has no meaning, because powers greater than her will decide for her?
It’s a difficult film and I think its difficulty comes from Takahata’s confusion about what to do with the narrative.
I don’t think films need to have a meaning. I don’t think art has to say anything about life or whathaveyou. But these elements are deep in the folktale tradition. They’re stories to teach us who and what we are. They’re often moral in nature.
So what does Takahata’s take on the story tell us about ourselves or Japanese people or morality?
Is it simply that final speech by Kaguya before the robe is forced on her?
That the world is full of wonderment and beauty, though we must sacrifice and suffer simultaneously?
The story and themes become muddled, I think, and it’s really too bad, because the film is beautiful. There are parts and elements that are maybe the best of Takahata’s career, but I find it unsatisfying as a whole.
The artwork is gorgeous. I love the style. You can’t look at this film and not be blown away by how beautiful every frame is.
I love the characters. They’re created well and we care about them.
But the fact that none of it matters in the end is troubling.
And maybe this is what Takahata has to say about life. That none of it matters.
I’ve often talked about how Miyazaki is a bleak man. He’s bleak but his films are generally optimistic.
Takahata doesn’t share that optimism, and I think he may even be bleaker.
Though the world is beautiful and glorious, it doesn’t matter because it will all be taken from you.
I think of Grave of the Fireflies and how utterly decimated I was after watching it both times. It’s brutal and haunting.
This film. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, is almost senselessly cruel. It invites us in with fantasy and wonder. It makes us care about the conflicts and the characters.
And then it pulls the rug out from its own story and tells us that none of that mattered.
It gives us beauty and then brutally rips the meaning from it, leaving us a film that’s glorious to behold but difficult to give your heart to.
Isao Takahata is 80 so it’s very possible he’ll never make another film. He didn’t announce a retirement the way Miyazaki has (twice), but I wonder if this was his way of saying goodbye to film and to his audience.
I know my take on this film is an unusual one and many who read this will probably disagree with my view of the film, but I stand by all that I said here. It’s a testament to Takahata’s skill that this was up for an Academy Award and has received all kinds of critical acclaim.
I find this an unpleasant film though. I find it difficult to wrap my head around and difficult to like. I want so badly to love it and keep it in my head and heart forever.
But it’s too dark. It’s too cruel.
Give me Miyazaki any day. At least his brutal vision of humanity is tempered by a deep hope that we will someday be better.
Next week, we discuss the final Studio Ghibli film, which I’ve also never seen: When Marnie was There by Hrimasa Yonebayashi.