Just in case you haven’t read my profile, I’m gonna let you in on something: I’ve been intensely studying Japanese culture since earlier this year. And as such, I already knew how Ghibli’s adaptation of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, titled The Tale of Princess Kaguya, would turn out. And thank Jizo that I did! You’ll see why later in this post.
To sum it up, it all begins when an old bamboo cutter finds a baby girl inside a bamboo stalk. Since this is a Shinto story, he doesn’t bat an eye whatsoever at this find, and decides to raise her. Before we know it, bamboo stalks start oozing gold and his daughter is in the lap of luxury!
Normally, I’d discuss visuals last. But since the paint-like art style of Kaguya stands out so much, I gotta talk about it first. My first instinct is to chalk it up as gimmicky. However, the implementation of the different textures of the brush, as well as colors, helps the movie convey mood and motion better than most modern TV anime. The simplistic designs also help make characters super expressive and movements to be consistently smooth and fluid.
But the question becomes: “If you took away the unique artstyle, is the movie still any good?” Narratively speaking, Kaguya is more-or-less a family drama of the “Kid just wants to be a kid but gets all of it yanked away from them on account of their dumb, money-grubbing parent(s)”, a la Citizen Kane. I personally don’t care much for family dramas as a narrative theme, and I only chose to watch this movie because of my familiarity with the original story.
And I made a good call, because otherwise I don’t know if I would’ve liked Kaguya otherwise. At two and a half hours, this adaptation of a folk take that takes about five or ten minutes to read takes its sweet time. Despite how she’s supposed to be rapidly growing, it takes about the first hour for her to actually become a teenager and for the core narrative to start in earnest. Leading up to that, you end up deathly curious as to what her origin is (well, you’re meant to at least), but find yourself just watching a kid just bumbling around with other kids for a while. As admittedly boring this first act is, I greatly prefer it over the alternative, which is to have the sh** go down within the first five minutes before you can acclimate yourself to her childhood. Because of this, it actually feels emotional when the aforementioned sh** goes down.
But the thing is, despite how expressive the characters are in the animation, most of them are very unremarkable. The titular character, Kaguya, is probably the only one you’ll remember over time. Like in the story, she’s a real rambunctious rascal, and merely wants to live out that Cindi Lauper dream of girls just wanting to have fun. Watching everything crumble around her is pretty darn engaging, as sadistic as that sounds.
Her parents are polar opposites, with the “bad” parent being the dad. He starts as this jolly old fart and becomes an utter ass in his hunger for glory. Fortunately, Kaguya’s mom still gets her daughter, but she can’t do much. Time period and all that. Most other characters, besides Best Girl Chubby Loli Servant, aren’t that interesting.
The background music is nice. It’s obviously traditional, old school Japanese classical instruments, and it’s very beautiful. I noticed, in the opening credits, that the music is by the same guy that did Children of the Sea (if only it premiered in American theaters *glares at GKids*).
One big issue I can see viewers having with Kaguya is its final act. I can’t even imagine what audiences thought when they first saw it. I mean, this movie spends almost two hours building up this big family drama, and just when it’s about to go down… from straight outta left field… POW! Sudden new development! But there was no way around it. Here’s a fun fact: that ending is canon. I’m not joking; this movie’s ending isn’t Ghibli taking any serious creative liberties; they are following the source material. From a narrative standpoint, it is a very BS note to go out on, but there ya have it. Maybe someday, Disney will do a fluffier adaptation and retcon it like they did with the Grimm brothers, but for now this is what we get. I would’ve been livid if I wasn’t familiar with the source material, that’s for sure.
Final Verdict: 8.5/10
It’s slow-paced, relatable, and cynical; no wonder it was so successful in the West! In all honesty, despite how good The Tale of Princess Kaguya is overall, I can’t easily recommend it. It is very slow, nuanced, very cultural, and that ending… Hoo boy! For all intents and purposes, this is probably the best version of her story. But movies are an inherently bigger investment than a cute little folktale, so the crotch-kick at the end hurts more than reading the original. It all depends on what medium you’d prefer. I’d recommend Kaguya if you want a reprieve from the cheapo anime that they churn out like Jeff Daniels in that disgusting scene of Dumb and Dumber, or if you’re studying Japanese culture and want to know about one of its famous folktales.