Ghibli Retrospective: “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”

Isao Takahata is Studio Ghibli’s second critically acclaimed director. He is neither as good nor as prolific as Miyazaki, but he is, for lack of a better word, “artsier”. Takahata’s best known film is “The Grave of the Fireflies” (which I will NOT be getting to), the notoriously sad and depressing wartime classic about two children who starve to death in WWII era Japan. “Grave of the Fireflies” is universally acclaimed, undeniably brilliant, profound, moving, and something nobody ever, ever desires to watch twice. Takahata is not a crowd pleaser like Miyazaki is.

…Which isn’t to say that he’s bad. Quite the contrary, Takahata is very good, and certainly interesting. He has two of the most artistically unique Studio Ghibli films, “My Neighbors the Yamadas” and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”.

The first and most obvious thing to note is that yes, the pencil-drawn “Kaguya” is a beautiful film. The story of the film is taken from the Japanese folktale (or, technically more accurately, Monogatari) “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. The plot is that a bamboo cutter discovers an infant the size of his thumb inside of a magical stalk of bamboo, an infant he immediately recognizes is a Princess with no name. Together with his wife, they raise the infant as she grows with supernatural speed into a young woman of exquisite beauty. At the same time, the Bamboo cutter finds gold and fine clothing appearing inside other stalks of bamboo, and takes it as a sign from Heaven that he is to move to the capital and raise the Princess as actual royalty, where she learns the duties of a real Princess and leaves her friends back in the bamboo valley behind.

The movie is – bluntly – rather dull, but it is an interesting look at Japanese culture and history. However, this is also its biggest failure. Miyzaki is often cited as a feminist, but he is not in the way westerners think of the term, at least as far as his movie go. If this movie is anything to go by, Takahata is. “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is profoundly and obnoxiously anti-men, and the truly harmful thing about this is that to reach that point the movie needs to lie about its past and its origins.

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” tries to paint a picture of an old Japan where young Princesses were swept up against their will by the whims of the patriarchy, unable to make their own choices or escape the expectations of a male-oriented society. The Princess is clearly far happier at her original home by the bamboo forest, playing with other children and living among the beauty of nature, than she is living at the cold, sterile palace. But her father essentially forces her to live at the palace he builds for, claiming the entire time that royal life and marriage are for her happiness but obviously thinking more about his own newfound status.

The royalty who come to visit the Princess and ask for her hand in marriage clearly know absolutely nothing about her and don’t care, comparing her to various objects and completely uninterested in getting to know her personally. The Emperor almost kidnaps her. The one male character originally portrayed as positive in the film considers leaving his wife and children to run off with her. Literally none of the male characters are portrayed positively. The father has a change of heart at the end of the film, but he has been such a negative influence up until then that it very much comes across as too little, too late.

The big issue here is that this isn’t how the original 10th century story went; put another way, this movie is portraying a lie. This is not what all men were like. Her father did not shop the Princess out to various men like a slave in the market, but rather tried to protect her from the outside world; he was not happy about making her choose among the royalty who come to court her, but is pressured into it.

When the Emperor comes to court the Princess, he does not attempt to kidnap her, and when she rejects him, he does not vow to return and make her marry him whatever her issues on the matter. In fact, the Emperor treats the Princess with great respect the entire time. He continually proposes to her, having fallen in love, but accepts her rebuffs with grace. When the moon people come for her at the end of the story, the Emperor tries to stop them despite the fact that she rejected him. In the original tale, the roles of the men and women are, if anything, reversed; the Princess has the royalty wrapped around her little finger while her father is forcibly bullied by them despite his best efforts to help her.

At the end of the story, the Princess and the Emperor have such a close relationship that the Princess writes a letter to the Emperor herself before she is taken back to the moon, and the Emperor is so overcome with grief he sends men to the top of Mount Fuji – the mountain “closest to heaven” – and tells them to burn the letter in the hope that it will one day reach the Princess.

And ultimately this is the biggest issue with the film: It tries to paint an image of a time gone by when women were treated as objects and men were selfish boors and jerks, when the original story simply doesn’t portray a world like that. The point of the film is a lie, and if the movie is most interesting as a piece of Japanese culture, it is highly disappointing to see it wear its anti-men agenda so proudly on its sleeve like that.

If you like the idea of watching an experiment in pencil drawn animation and semi-dreamlike storytelling, then you might find the movie of interest; I can’ really say I regret watching it. But for most people, it’s not recommended.