‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’ (‘Kaguya-hime no monogatari’): Cannes Review

Le Conte de la Princesse Kaguya Cannes Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

Le Conte de la Princesse Kaguya Cannes Film Still - H 2014

This delicately rendered feat of animation skill is beautiful and moving, but it underperformed in Japan and may struggle to find audiences internationally.

An ancient Japanese folk tale is brought to life by director Isao Takahata, who made "Grave of the Fireflies" and co-founded Studio Ghibli with the better known Hayao Miyazaki.

The director Isao Takahata, who co-founded with Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) the storied Studio Ghibli brand, is no slouch with a pen. Unfortunately though, apart from Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), his work is not especially well-known outside of Japan and animation fan circles. The screening in Cannes in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar of his latest, the delicate and fetching episodic period-piece The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no monogatari), may remedy that neglect a little by exposing the film to international acquisitions executives as well as festival and rep house programmers, but the film remains a tricky a commercial proposition for offshore territories. Even back home in Japan it underperformed, earning a relatively paltry $22m compared to the $122m haul for Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises.

So resolutely old school in every way, from its 10th century source material and setting to its use of hand-drawn frames that self-consciously recall the watercolor and ink art of ancient Japanese art, Princess Kaguya almost looks experimental compared to most anime films these days, with their sci-fi settings, goggle-eyed cartoony characters, and heavy reliance on CGI. It’s not even easy to see to which audiences this would appeal beyond hardcore animation buffs, especially since the feisty female protagonist is neither the sexy bombshell type adolescent males like in the usual adult-skewed anime, nor the kind of simpering kawaii cutie typical in kids-targeted fare. Indeed, with its 137-minute running time and sad, heartbreaking denoument, it would be a tough watch for the family market, who largely expect happy endings and bedtime-friendly proportions.

Nevertheless, putting all those commercial considerations aside, it’s a lovely piece of work. Adapted from the well-known (in Japan) folk tale, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” (considered by some to be one of the very first works of science fiction in world literature), it tells the story of a magical child who’s found by a peasant in a shining bamboo shoot one day and grows up to be an independent-minded princess, something of a feminist before her time.

At one self-reflexive point in the film, the princess (who’s voiced as an adult by Aki Asakura) is shown a precious illustrated scroll that depicts an epic tale in one long continuous strip, and it’s not hard to see there’s a parallel intended with the movie’s own episodic but flowing construction. Princess Kaguya is all thoughtfully rendered set pieces melded together, which means it doesn’t have the same bell-curve-like arcs to its narrative that we’ve come to expect in most mainstream films. Each moment is just as momentous or trivial as the other.

Standout sequences which show off Takahata and his team’s tremendous flair for expressing movement include a sequence where the baby princess goes from struggling to crawl to learning to walk in literally a few steps, and a terrific, stylized sequence where -- all smeary speed lines dramatic key frames -- where she dreams as an adult of escape from the life of lady-like behavior and courtly manners her father tries to establish for her in the city. The tension between obeisance to family and social norms versus self-expression rings resonantly throughout as a major theme.

Music, ranging from traditional koto plucking to the obligatory pop song over the end credits, adds emotional depth and is deployed organically throughout the story. Likewise, the spare backgrounds and economically drawn foreground characters feel entirely and pleasingly of a piece, marking another difference between the usual run-of-the-mill anime, with its hyper-detailed backgrounds and limited-movement characters.

Production companies: A Studio Ghibli production

Cast: Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii, Nobuko Miyamoto, Atsuko Takahata, Tomoko Tabata, Shinosuke Tatekawa

Director: Isao Takahata

Screenwriter: Isao Takahata, Riko Sakaguchi

Producers: Yoshiaki Nishimura

Executive producer: Seiichiro Ujiie, Yoshio Okubo, Koji Hoshino

Character Design/directing animator: Osamu Tanabe

Art director: Kazuo Oga

Animation supervisor: Kenichi Konishi

Music: Joe Hisaishi

Sales: Wild Bunch

No rating, 137 minutes