Old and New: Studio Ghibli’s Tale of the Princess Kaguya

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.

 

 

 

A Sign of What is Yet to Come: Future Boy Conan

Having finally seen Future Boy Conan, I’ve come to the conclusion that this 1977 anime is probably the work that most directly represents two of the major themes in Miyazaki Hayao’s earlier works, environmentalism and Marxism. People are likely more familiar with the former, which figures prominently into works such as Nausicaa, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke, while the latter tends to be a bit more subtle. While the characters of Future Boy Conan aren’t rolling out banners with pictures of Karl Marx on it, the criticism of capitalism and the dangers of “unthinking” technological progress as associated with a post-industrial society are too strong to ignore in Future Boy Conan. It makes for an interestingly political work, though perhaps what is equally impressive is that the series does not neglect to build up a rich cast of characters, an interesting world, and a sense of fun and wonder, whether is characters are traveling on land, sea, or air, that perhaps even contributes to that Marxist underpinning.

Future Boy Conan takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earth that has had most of its land masses submerged due to the use of “super electromagnetic weapons,” said to be even more powerful than nuclear weapons. At the center of the narrative is Conan, a boy whose life of hunting and fishing has granted him unusual (almost superhuman) strength and swiftness, and Lana, a telepath girl who holds the secret to reviving the limitless power source that is “solar energy,” and together the two must evade capture by the technological city of Industria, whose leader Lepka wants to use solar energy for his own selfish desires. Here, the series’ warnings about the abuse of technology and issue of greed are clear, but this is also contrasted with scenes of Conan using his nature boy powers to baffle his enemies like a freakishly powerful Dennis the Menace tormenting Mr. Wilson. The result is a work that is clearly in its championing of communal lifestyles and living closer to nature, but I can’t tell if the series’ own sense of action and adventure make for a “Trojan Horse” through which these political concepts are introduced, or if those fun and more lighthearted elements are the very means by which these arguments are made.

Much like some of the more lighthearted Studio Ghibli films, Future Boy Conan can be approached in a variety of ways. Certainly it can be seen as this highly political work. It can even be watched for historical or cultural significance, being an early work from not only Miyazaki but also the other big Ghibli director Takahata Isao. However, these need not be the primary reasons to watch Future Boy Conan, as it’s just as strong in terms of its sprawling sense of epic adventure and its attention to animation and even just the fact that it’s a simply an engaging story. Outside of its original context or the Marxist and environmentalist themes, Future Boy Conan is extremely approachable without needing to be a fan of older anime.

If you do pay attention to the political aspects of Future Boy Conan, however, then there is much to chew on. Nowhere is the criticism of capitalism stronger than in Lepka’s characterization. His problem isn’t just that he is clearly a horrible human being, but rather that his time spent at the “top” means that he has no conception of how people really are. To him, the masses comprise an amorphous engine meant to serve him, and he has no idea what it really means to be a leader. This also ties in with the series’ warnings about abuse of technology, as it is through his reliance on technology as a means to control the lower classes that he is increasingly both literally and metaphorically distanced from them. in this respect, it’s especially noteworthy that the prospect of a renewable energy source, a dream of humanity both inside and outside of fiction, is viewed with skepticism in Future Boy Conan. Although I don’t agree entirely with its message, the fact that it encourages us to be wary of the possibility that limitless energy might not satisfy those whose ambitions are to always have more is a warning message that’s still relevant today.

I find it kind of funny that I finished Future Boy Conan not long after having seen The Wind Rises, which is said to be Miyazaki’s final feature-length film. Whereas The Wind Rises is partly about the costs of living according to one’s passions, Future Boy Conan strongly exhibits a more youthful sense of idealism with its post-apocalyptic environment that makes way for what is more or less a communist agrarian utopia. Here is a man who has changed, and if we take his works each as their own “Miyazaki,” I wonder what kind of debate they would get into.

Anne of Green Gables: It’s the most wonderful story of an orphaned girl whose life is changed when she is adopted and gets to live on a beautiful farm with birds singing and glorious trees full of splendid color and she meets a girl and they become best friends. Ah, how I wish I could be her! Why, everyday I would

World Masterpiece Theater is a very long-running series in Japan, where famous stories from around the world are adapted into television anime series. Even today new series are running under the World Masterpiece Theater banner, and in practically every case it’s produced a series loved by many and considered to be of the finest quality in Japanese animation. One particularly exceptional series comes to us from 1979: Anne of Green Gables. Adapted from the novel of the same title by Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, or “Akage no Anne” as it’s called in Japan, is the story of a young orphan named Anne Shirley and the positive impact she makes upon the life of a pair of elderly siblings, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, as well as the little Canadian town of Avonlea in which they live.

Now, I’ve never read any of the novels and never really planned to, but two factors piqued my interest enough to watch the anime. First was the fact that it is so well-regarded in Japan, and second was that it bears one of the more remarkable pedigrees in anime history. The director and first layout artist for Anne are two names you might recognize: Takahata Isao and Miyazaki Hayao. They are the two men who would a few years later found Studio Ghibli, perhaps the most respected and highly acclaimed Japanese animation studio of all time. Also on board were Kondou Yoshifumi on character designs and Sakurai Michiyo, who would take over from Miyazaki on layout. The two would go on to do key animation for various Ghibli titles such as Kiki’s Delivery Service and Porco Rosso (Yoshifumi), Castle in the Sky Laputa (Sakurai), and even direct for Ghibli (Yoshifumi on Whisper of the Heart). Both also did key animation for Grave of the Fireflies. Simply put, this show did not suffer from a lack of talent.

While this was not the first time the duo of Takahata and Miyazaki had worked together, nor was it the first time they had done any World Masterpiece titles, Anne of Green Gables is one of the best examples of what they were able to accomplish. Anne of Green Gables takes full advantage of its fairly episodic format by making each and every episode a joy to watch either on its own or in large chunks of multiple episodes. It makes the show approachable at any stage, and the show becomes a pleasant yet compelling experience, especially when you factor in Anne Shirley herself. Anne, who introduces herself as “Anne with an E but I’d rather be called Cordelia,” is a shining example of a main character who just carries a story. All of the other characters are good too, mind you, from Anne’s best friend Diana to the rascally Gilbert Blythe, but her name’s in the title for a reason.

Anne’s most endearing trait is probably her tendency to get caught up in her own imagination. When combined with her love of storytelling, it results in seemingly endless declarations of love and hate, with flares of drama or comedy or passion depending on how she’s feeling and where her sentence construction is taking her. Anne is never satisfied with a simple story, and will turn even simple lies into elaborate tales just to fulfill her sense of the dramatic. Give her one episode and you’ll be likely be drawn into her world.

Anne of Green Gables is not only one of the most beloved novels of all time but also one of the most beloved anime of all time. Just this very year, the prequel novel Before Green Gables was adapted into a currently-running TV series to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original anime. 30 years is a long time, but Anne of Green Gables has aged very gracefully. Kannagi director Yamamoto Yutaka said at one of his Otakon 2009 panels that he considers Anne to be the best example of how to do a long television anime series, and while I cannot say it is the best, it certainly sets a good precedent. In fact, my only real regret with this series is that we are no longer able to see Miyazaki and Takahata use their talents on television series, as they’ve moved on to feature films and almost nothing else.

Anne of Green Gables has a level of quality and accessibility that few anime can live up to, and just as the original novel still carries relevance today, so too does Akage no Anne.

I Do Not Envy the Staff of Before Green Gables

Before Green Gables, known also by its Japanese title Konnichiwa Anne, is a prequel to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original Anne of Green Gables (Akage no Anne) anime. It’s even being done by the same production company that did the original. Obviously with the show a month or two away by this point I have no way to actually judge it, but what I can say is that its predecessor is a tough act to live up to.

If you look at the staff for the original Anne of Green Gables anime, you’ll perhaps see some familiar names, and none more familiar than “Miyazaki Hayao” and “Takahata Isao.” That’s right, this anime was made by the team that would go on to form Studio Ghibli. Sure it was back when they were younger and less experienced, but I really do not envy the current staff.

Perhaps they can benefit from the fact that it’s a 30th anniversary and many people today would be too young to remember the original. In any case, I feel like no matter how the show ends up I want to do my best to not constantly compare the two works. You know, despite this entire post being all about the comparison.

Factoring Time into the Visual Aesthetics of Anime

Having spent yesterday and today hesitating on whether or not to buy the special edition Cardcaptor Sakura movies, I decided to sit down and watch some episodes of Cardcaptor Sakura, to see if it would swing my decision one way or the other. As of now, it’s still undecided, but just like every other time I’ve decided to re-watch Cardcaptor Sakura, I was reminded of how good the show looks. Years from now, the show will still look good. And this got me to thinking about the way time relates to an anime’s visuals.

In animation, there is a race to see the visual quality of animation improve over time. Though it’s not as drastic or hotly contested as the race that video games have gone through, it’s not uncommon to hear from people that a show looks outdated. This is a dangerous way of thinking, as it assumes that the shows you like today will be considered inferior in ten, twenty years. One might say then, that “timelessness” is the ideal to pursue, but at the same time I don’t think “timelessness” of visuals is necessarily a good thing. Much like how making anime for an international audience can take away some of the uniquely Japanese aspects of anime, I think a similar problem can occur when the creators of a show try to isolate it from its own time. At the same time, this isn’t an excuse for a show to look bad or have poor art direction and using either “timelessness” or “representative of its time” as an excuse.

Different shows seem to approach this issue of time and its relation to the animation quality. In Cardcaptor Sakura, it’s the well-thought-out “camera” angles, transitions, and just the way the show flows naturally from scene to scene and action to action that makes it stand the oft-mentioned “test of time.” Koutetsushin Jeeg and Re:Cutie Honey, both updates of 70s Nagai Go works, merge the visual cues of 70s anime with a modern sense of perspective and consistency towards animation. Casshern SINS, a current show, takes an interesting approach. Its main character is said to be immortal, and to show this the design of Casshern references anime throughout the decades. Casshern himself is a 70s anime character, while his hair and musculature are similar to 80s characters, his figure and facial features are reminiscent of 90s bishounen, and the overall aesthetic of the show is very modern. Anne of Green Gables, a 1979 anime series directed by Grave of the Fireflies director Takahata Isao (with Miyazaki on staff as well), is an adaptation of an already well-known novel, and though there wasn’t a lot of resources in animation at that time, they worked with what they had to make the show very engaging.

“Working with what you have” may not always produce the best or most well-remembered shows, but I think it’s an important step in making a show whose visuals will be well-remembered years down the line when what was once cutting-edge will become as old-hat as wearing a skinned sabretooth tiger. One thing that Cardcaptor Sakura, Koutetsushin Jeeg, Re:Cutie Honey, Casshern SINS, and Anne of Green Gables have in common is that you can see the sheer amount of effort put into these shows. Judging “effort” is tricky business, and might even be scoffed at as impossible or even arbitrary, but when there’s this much effort involved I think you can’t help but notice. And when people, year after year notice this, that’s when a show’s visuals can be called “timeless.”

Though if you don’t aim for “timeless” art direction, that still doesn’t mean your show cannot be great.