It’s a shame that a large portion of Ghibli’s American fanbase views any non-Miyazaki film as a seat-filler. Isao Takahata directed THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA, and it’s better than THE WIND RISES by a wide margin. Depending on how WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE plays, of course, it may yet prove to be the studio’s most fitting final statement.
The film has been mis-marketed. The American trailer makes it look a quaint fairy tale, with its unusual brush stroke style being the major selling point. While that animation flourish (consciously evoking illustrations from the story’s era) is certainly marvelous, the real hook here is the pointed critique of celebrity, and the male gaze. If that’s difficult to get across in quotes on a poster, then let’s try something buzzier and say this is a sharp antidote to princess films.
Asking bigger existential questions (more on the order of films like THE FOUNTAIN), PRINCESS KAGUYA very viscerally puts viewers in the seat of the archetypal, perfect maiden featured in every fairy tale. What would really like to be known as the fairest of them all? What would it really be like to be put on a pedestal? What would it really like to be adored by everybody?
The most pointed scenes come when Kaguya sees the sharp disconnect between the lofty ideal her suitors are courting, and the rambunctious young girl her real friends know her to be. Sometimes, the gulf closes with humorous pratfalls, as she famously sets the richest men up off retrieve ludicrous, impossible treasures as her dowry. More often, the gap turns tragic, and we can feel her profound sense of guilt, realizing these young men got themselves killed chasing the idea of a woman, not even af person.
Without spoiling too much, the film’s finale is one of the most mesmerizing and thought-provoking scenes I’ve seen in any picture, live or animated, this year. When Buddha and his entourage descend from the moon, this takes on the quality of a true, classic tragedy that were likely absent in the original folk tale. Kaguya tries to escape her destiny and ultimately finds should prefer the humble simplicity of rural living with her family and friends over the burden of being a legend.