Any adaptation of a folktale must inevitably face two challenges. First, in conveying a story that “everybody” has heard of, how much should the audience be expected to know, and how much should it act as an unfamiliar experience? Second, to what extent should the narrative and cultural qualities be adapted to more contemporary sensibilities? In the process of transforming the classic Japanese story “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” into Studio Ghibli’s Tale of the Princess Kaguya, director Takahata Isao (Grave of the Fireflies, Anne of Green Gables) has found it appropriate to use this 1000-year-old story to question the relationship between happiness and security, and in the process has created a film that is extremely accessible to audiences around the world.
In both the original story and the film, an old bamboo cutter finds a small girl inside of a bamboo stalk and, along with his wife, raise this girl as their own. As the girl grows into a woman of incredible beauty, the man regularly returns to the bamboo forest in which he does his daily business. There, he frequently finds bamboo filled with gold, and using this newly-acquired prosperity, moves his family to the capital. However, the film first concentrates heavily on the early period of Princess Kaguya’s humble life in the forest, during which she is shown to be a tomboy who loves running in the fields and forests, and then focuses on her struggle with the splendor, pomp, and adherence to customs that are valued by the wealthy nobility. As a result, the film conveys both the experience of watching a child grow up through the eyes of loving parents, but also life from the perspective of Kaguya herself.
Kaguya’s active personality and disdain for the formal are, at least to my knowledge, original aspects of the film, and through her character shapes the classic story into a criticism of the assumption that life is at its best when one is free of monetary worries, and that upward social mobility is worth any amount of sacrifice. Of course, this is not a new theme in fiction, nor even in anime. After all, even Kill la Kill addresses this theme at one point with the “Fight Club Mako” episode and its similar transformation of a poor family into the upper class. What Tale of the Princess Kaguya does to really magnify this point, though, is to present many of the values from the time in which the original folktale was written, and to have it juxtaposed with Kaguya’s own free-spirited personality draws attention to how much life in the capital wears on her, and indeed how much women had to do to be “proper women.” Apparently, a true lady never runs, and most of the time should not even get up while sitting, nor does she laugh or shout. A true lady does not need eyebrows because she will never sweat. Everything is about staying put, but Kaguya inherently loathes this way of thinking, try as she might to adapt to it for the sake of her parents. In this respect, the film at certain key moments carries a strong feminist vibe.
In a way, Tale of the Princess Kaguya comes across as something of a mix of Disney’s Frozen (adapted from “The Snow Queen”) and Pixar’s Brave. It gives a new sensibility to an old fairy tale, but it also concentrates heavily on a daughter and her unwillingness to bend to the rules that her society tries to force upon her. The similariities to Brave are especially highlighted at the point in the story when Kaguya is presented with five noble suitors who, only hearing of her beauty rather than seeing it (as was the custom of the time), rush to take her hand in marriage. This is also present in the original story as just a matter of course, but here the film uses it to display the cheap and shallow notions of love that pervade the capital, its people, and old notions of femininity. One difference is that, unlike Merida in Brave, Kaguya does have a love interest of sorts (also an original character to the film).
While the thematic elements are important, it would be remiss of me to not mention the visuals style of the film. Unlike most other works from Studio Ghibli which, while always splendidly animated, tend to go for a cleaner look, Tale of the Princess Kaguya looks as if it were a picture book or an old Japanese painting come to life. The style seen in the promotional posters for the film is how the movie looks, and it creates a strong ethereal quality that falls in line with the overall themes of “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” Even most of the characters look quite unconventional in terms of more attention being paid to differentiating them on a design level, with the only character who truly looks like a Ghibli-style heroine being Kaguya herself. It was clearly an enormous task for the animators, and even looking at the credits one can see that many of the top Japanese animation studios contributed, including Studio 4°C and BONES. Tale of the Princess Kaguya may be worth seeing just to experience its aesthetics.
Most people know Takahata for Grave of the Fireflies, and in that sense it sort of feels as if he and his old Ghibli partner Miyazaki Hayao have swapped places in what might be each of their final films. Miyazaki creates the overtly political and morally challenging The Wind Rises, while Takahata tackles a classic Japanese story about a beautiful girl. However, certain qualities of the film remind me of one of Takahata’s directorial works from his pre-Ghibli days, namely Hols: Prince of the Sun. Kaguya and her struggle recall the conflicted heroine Hilda in Hols, which perhaps makes it less of a new path and more of a return to, and evolution of, established aspects of Takahata’s history, something rather appropriate for an adaptation of an old folktale.