The Tale of the Princess Kaguya


Studio Ghibli / Universal Pictures


Rating: PG


Reason for the Rating: Thematic elements, some violent action and partial nudity.


Plot Summary: In ancient Japan, A bamboo cutter and his wife raise a mysterious child found inside a shining stalk of bamboo.


PopFam Recommends: Not really for kids, but literary and enchanting for adults.


The first thing you should know about The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is that it’s not really for kids.


That’s not because it contains much in the way of objectionable content, but simply because the story itself is thematically mature. Princess Kaguya is a tragic tale, with bursts of happiness surrounded by tracts of sorrow, longing, and loss. And it has no happy ending, meaning children who endure the 2 hour, 18 minute running time with walk away confused and saddened when it’s done.


That said, parents (and mature teens) who are interested in Japanese folklore and lushly-drawn animation will be mesmerized by this film. Here’s the basic story:


On a lonely mountain in Japan live a poor bamboo cutter and his wife. One day while cutting bamboo, he discovers a shining stalk, and inside it, a beautiful young child no bigger than his thumb. He takes the sleeping girl home, where she magically transforms (as if reincarnated before their eyes) into a human-sized infant. The bamboo cutter and his wife raise the baby as their own, and she grows to be a delightful, enchanting part of the mountain community.


The bamboo cutter later discovers gold in shining bamboo stalks, and decides that heaven is telling him to raise his daughter as a princess in the capitol city. So he builds a castle and moves his family there. The daughter, against her wishes, is trained in the art of nobility and becomes the most-desired woman in the kingdom, with princes and nobles all vying for her hand in marriage. She outwits them all and manages to remain unmarried, and then the true about her secret origin in the bamboo stalk comes to light, and the consequences mean she must leave her family forever. (I won’t tell you exactly how that last part works, because it would ruin the movie for you. Suffice it to say, there are tears and sadness, and that’s the way the movie ends.)


The Tale of the Princess Kaguya really is beautifully drawn—except that almost all of the adult characters are somehow disfigured in appearance. I think that’s device used in Japanese animation to accentuate the differences between characters, but it’s sometimes jarring to look at onscreen. Background scenery of mountains and city and gardens and insects and sunrises and oceans and more, though, are stunning. The famed Studio Ghibli (which created this animated film) used American voice actors for this edition. In some cases, that’s a great choice. Lucy Liu is a standout as the brittle princess-trainer, Lady Sagami, and Chloë Grace Moretz is charming in the title role. James Caan and Mary Steenburgen as the bamboo cutter and his wife leave a little bit to be desired. Still, the story moves along, always surprising, often intriguing, and readily engaging.


This is a literary folktale, steeped in Japanese custom and a Buddhist worldview, fascinating for the “otherness” it brings to American eyes. Yet it doesn’t take long to see some of the universal humanness on display in the lives of the princess and her family. Though not preachy, the film deals with serious topics like heaven, humanity, purpose, right, wrong, joy, sorrow, and the rights and roles of women in society. The ending, as I’ve said, is not a happy one—but it is an appropriate one.


There’s really not much in the way of bonus features on the Blu-ray edition of this film, but there is a full-length documentary on the making of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya on an additional disk. The documentary isn’t for everyone, but it is interesting in its own way for those who are hardcore fans of Studio Ghibli and this movie.


Parents should also be aware that while there’s no truly objectionable element in the movie, it does contain non-sexual nudity in a rural family setting—a nursing mother’s uncovered breasts, pantsless toddlers running around their homes, that kind of thing. There’s also one death (a man falls and breaks his back), polygamy, and frequent references to Buddhist philosophy and understandings of heaven that might need to be explained if you watch with children.


In all, I can’t say that The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is entertaining in the way a Disney fairy tale would be, but I can say it’s thought-provoking, and interesting, and a bamboo-cut above traditional, slapstick-American, animated films. My advice? Grab your spouse, block out a quiet evening, and spend some time in Kaguya’s world. Then talk about it over coffee the next morning—and enjoy.




Tags: Kaguya,Chloë Grace Moretz, Lucy Liu,James Caan,Mary Steenburgen,Studio Ghibli,Isao Takahata


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