Not every little girl wants to be a princess.

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I watched Kaguya at the cinema earlier today. I’m in the UK. I did have the anti-social option of just torrenting and watching it at home, but I happened to be nearby and felt that I should go and support Studio Ghibli in person for once – and it’s only on show for a week ending tomorrow, although it may be different depending on where you, dear reader, are living. I’m not surprised, because stuff like this is really underrated around here. It’s so disappointing that I’ve devoted a whole section to the current state of Western animation and what happened at the Oscars below. In the end, I’m really glad I did go, because I cannot recommend Kaguya more. It’s now one of my favourite Ghiblis, and definitely my favourite in recent memory. I mean, The Wind Rises was good as well, but it was very different from the usual Ghibli, and it didn’t quite resonate with me in the way it might have done for others. Kaguya was this beautiful blend of historical, fantasy and drama, and I spent the entire train ride home thinking about it. I also got to hear what I think was Noto Mamiko’s voice on a Western cinema screen. It was only for a few seconds, but it was happiness. This will be full of spoilers, as I’m no good at the whole ‘objective review’ thing. Although this isn’t really a review as such, but more my thoughts organised into paragraphs and stuff I found interesting.

Princess Kaguya

I suppose I should start with Princess Kaguya herself. Or ‘Takenoko’, as the kids in the countryside nicknamed her. It represents the split between the life she had in the countryside and the one she had at the capital, and it’s bridged by the bamboo cutter and his wife, who call her ‘Hime’ more out of affection than anything else. ‘Takenoko’ actually becomes quite significant later on, when a grown-up Sutemaru meets Kaguya after a long time, and asks if he can still call her that – essentially asking if she was still the same girl as the one he knew all those years ago. I thought loli Kaguya was too cute, by the way, but you probably already guessed I was going to say something along those lines. The older, presumably young adult Kaguya was really interesting. The bottom line is that she was generally unhappy. I think she genuinely did enjoy parts of it like playing the koto, but she knew high society was not where her happiness was, and that’s easily shown by how she spent a lot of time in plain clothes and without any make-up, doing simple tasks the nobles would have gasped at with horror if they had known.

The question, then, is why she put up with it all. She hid it quite well – at times I found it hard to tell how much she liked or hated her life as a princess, and it only became clear when they then showed her at a time when she was truly happy, like when she went to see the blooming cherry blossoms. And it’s then, when a woman grovels at her feet unashamedly that she realises she isn’t free at all, even when surrounded by the nature she loved as a child. You could say that she ‘had to’ conform, but I don’t think it’s that so much as it is her father who prompts her – she knows that he gets lots of happiness and delight in her being of noble status, and she wants to make him happy. She messed about in her training and education at all times except when her father was watching – at which point she performed perfectly. And when she hears that he is interested the position he will get should she serve at court, Kaguya says she will ensure he gets that position before killing herself. Another reason might be because she just intuitively knows that nobility is closer to her true self than being a wild child is. It almost felt like some of the skills she developed weren’t so much learnt as they were ‘remembered’, which would be more than a possibility given her growth spurts and divine abilities.

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High Society

The bamboo cutter essentially bought his way in. It just goes to show how artificial high society was back in 10th-century Japan, with the ability to spout eloquent bullshit being a particularly useful skill. The status of women was particularly bad, and being the Princess Kaguya didn’t help – rather, her exquisite beauty had men objectify her even more within a patriarchal society where brides-to-be only get to meet their suitor on their wedding day. It didn’t get more artificial than with the five suitors, who’d initially expressed doubt and scepticism before the rumours exploded – and then, despite never having met or seen her, they supposedly fell in love with her. I really liked how they did the famous ‘Impossible Requests’ scene, by the way. Aside from making me recall my struggles against Kaguya in Touhou -the suitor told to fetch the Jewelled Branch of Hourai was Mokou’s father!- it was her way of acknowledging that they wanted to objectify her, and that she would never allow them to do so. It was definitely one of my favourite parts of the film alongside the escape scene, the flying scene and the moon procession.

Kaguya Img015I presume that historically, many of these noble women were actually born into nobility, and weren’t of ‘common birth’. It’d mean they would have been indoctrinated from the very beginning, and taught never to go against convention. Kaguya was less influenced but not totally free from convention – the status quo of the time had every male in Kaguya’s life from her father to the emperor deciding what happiness would be for her, ignoring the fact that not every little girl wants to be a princess. I would like to think of this as an anti-Disney message of sorts, but I’ll go into that a bit more later. The point is, happiness is sometimes simpler than glamour and riches, and someone like the bamboo cutter fundamentally failed to understand that.

The emperor was a scumbag. I can see why he thought he was entitled, and he probably was to anyone who wasn’t a divine existence, but it doesn’t change the fact that he essentially accelerated Kaguya’s fate. Studio Ghibli added a lot of content that wasn’t in the original Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, but they also cut short the very end of the folk tale, which involves the aftermath of the moon procession taking Kaguya away. Kaguya had written to the emperor, enclosing an extract from the immortality elixir which the emperor then decided to throw away at the summit of what is now Mount Fuji. Incidentally, Touhou canon has Mokou kill the messenger sent to throw it away and drink the elixir he was carrying for herself, resulting in her wandering around for centuries. The emperor as he’s portrayed here was too much of a scumbag to deserve much sympathy, I think, which is why it wasn’t included.

The Bamboo Cutter

If I had to hazard a guess, the general consensus on the bamboo cutter would be that he was misguided but had good intentions. I generally agree with that. He really did love her, and the ‘Hime’ vs ‘Takenoko’ scene when Kaguya was still a baby proved that just fine. And he also wanted the best for her – it certainly didn’t take a day to get established in the capital, and I’d imagine he had to do a lot of sucking up just to get himself recognised and his mansion built. At the same time, however, I can’t help but feel that the father enjoyed himself a little too much with his better lifestyle and the gold he got from the bamboo stalk. He started looking down on the countryside, and was hardly seen in anything but his fancy robes – yet he used to be doing manual labour in that same countryside, in a set of ragged work clothes. And of course, there was the major issue of him interpreting Kaguya’s happiness as whatever his happiness would be.

One scene given a quiet, almost silent significance was when the bamboo cutter arrived with his hands full of house-warming presents from the nobility, who had now allegedly accepted Kaguya as one of their own. It’s pretty fitting that in welcoming her to the ranks of high society they gift her a live bird in a cage, which she quickly realises she actually is. Before the bamboo cutter leaves, he holds up the bird in the cage and thanks the heavens presumably for the good fortune he’s enjoyed lately –  and everything wrong with the bamboo cutter and the way he was treating Kaguya was exemplified in that one action. It’s a small scene in the grand scheme of things, but it was something that really hit home for me.

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Kaguya Img012I’m not sure what the overall message of the film was, or if there even was one. It seems to support the idea that fate cannot be defied, because ultimately Kaguya did not succeed in staying on Earth. We don’t know how much she remembers, but presumably she will now spend her days pining for the Earth on the Moon, like her predecessor. It’s a realistic but bittersweet ending, and that was reflected in what little romance there was between Kaguya and Sutemaru – she tells him she might have been happy with him, but could not stop him from being beaten up while she watched from her carriage. The childhood friend never wins, and when Kaguya next talks to Sutemaru he’s married and has a child. Something like that would never happen in a Disney movie – if this was Disney, Kaguya would have eloped with Sutemaru and ridden off into the sunset, living happily ever after. I actually sat through the entire ED, waiting for a post-credits scene that would ease how depressed I felt at that ending. There never was one.

The Anti-Disney

Everything that is Kaguya is everything the current incarnation of Disney is not. Studio Ghibli is well-respected within the right circles, but in the Western animation world it’s a far cry from the powerhouse that is Disney. And Takahata Isao, whilst very much underrated these days, doesn’t have the general prominence that Miyazaki did. The themes and messages of Kaguya are very much grounded in bittersweet reality, and its take on the life of a princess practically subverts Disney’s entire ethos. Whilst still perfectly fit for children, it feels more catered to a slightly older audience capable of appreciating such themes.

Kaguya Img014There are some who criticise the art, calling it ‘lazy’. They are wrong. For one thing, it’s supposed to be an homage of sorts to the art style used back in 10th-century Japan, not unlike the art you would find in The Pillow Book or on karuta cards. But even putting that aside, brushing it off as ‘lazy’ would completely ignore the painstaking work that went towards producing such beautiful hand-drawn scenes like Kaguya’s escape or flying around with Sutemaru. Not that I’m saying CGI animation isn’t painstaking. It’s just that something like this is a breath of fresh air -and Ghibli is in general- in a Western animation market far too inundated with CGI. I’m not sure if this is just because I’ve grown up with the likes of The Lion King and Mulan, in the ancient era of VCR tapes and CD-ROMs, but Disney died with Finding Nemo to me, although I did really enjoy Up as well.

I suppose another point is that Kaguya didn’t win an Oscar, which I think is a serious injustice. The loss sustained by The Wind Rises to Frozen was understandable. It was a different sort of Ghibli, and Frozen was an acclaimed favourite. But Kaguya lost to the likes of Big Hero 6, and potentially to How To Train Your Dragon 2? And don’t get me started on the Academy member who called it one of two ‘obscure freakin Chinese fuckin things that nobody ever freakin saw’. I’m sorry, but what the fuck? I’m sure that’s irresponsible voting at the very least, and blatant ignorance and racism at the worst. I know the West is an import market so far as anime and Studio Ghibli is concerned, but what I do hope for is that stuff like Kaguya starts getting more recognition, not just from established fans but also from a general population currently far too easily willing to dismiss anything out of their comfort zone. But that’s like an ‘Impossible Request’ in itself.


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Solaris

    Really, nobody expected Kaguya to win anything at all. Just the nomination was enough advertisement on its own, so well… It didn’t win the prize? Who cares? Real worth doesn’t need a prize to be acknowledged

    1. Vantage

      I know it’s an import market and a cultural mismatch, but I can’t help but feel disappointed. It was so good, and was one of the best chances Ghibli had to get more recognition, especially as The Lego Movie wasn’t there. You’re right that the nomination served as advertisement in itself, though.

      Maybe a ‘Best Animated Feature’ Oscar isn’t worth much at all, if the people deciding on it are like that misguided fool I quoted. If we put aside John Lasseter’s backing for Spirited Away during the year that it won, and had voters vote for that same line-up today, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ice Age won instead.

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