Directed by Isao Takahata, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya follows a literal god-sent princess from the heavens. One day she is adopted by a middle-aged couple living in the woods as a baby. Despite being other-worldly, she goes through struggles that feel very human and tries to understand the purpose life serves.
Right off the bat, I’m in love with this film and it’s probably the best I’ve seen in few months. There is a lot that sets The Tale of the Princess Kaguya apart. Visually, it’s the art style, the animation, and the choice of color. Watercolor has always had a unique look to it and makes for some very atmospheric frames. Kanashimi no Belladonna and Tenshi no Tamago also had some excellent use of watercolor. Both of which also had characters moving in a world that felt rather lonely. Narratively, this movie feels very different from something like Spirited Away that had a descriptive plot to it. Princess Kaguya is all about this one girl’s life and the world surrounding her. It’s one of those movies that’s about so many things that it becomes hard to describe.
Much more than Feminism
None of the film’s achievements would be possible without its amazing characters. What struck me most is its portrayal of both genders. Men are frequently trying to control situations they possibly can’t. Be it Kaguya-Hime’s father or potential suitors that view Kaguya’s life as something they can influence. Women on the other hand are far more accepting of situations around them. Kaguya-Hime’s Mom stands by her down-to-earth lifestyle despite living in a palace. The governess accepts that Kaguya can’t be tamed into a princess. Both attributes can be interpreted as positives or negatives and are also applicable in themes of feminism. Regardless, the portrayals remain true to life. The film is never interested in taking a stand or preaching what is right or wrong.
The one personal favorite recurring theme, among many, is the meaning of happiness. Characters constantly remind Kaguya-Hime about what would make her happy instead of letting her find it herself. Mostly to fuel their own selfish motivations or simply because of how clueless they are themselves. Her Dad has his notions about what would make her happy. Yet, he never tries to find out what she’d like despite her obvious dissatisfaction. Later on, a governess attempts to teach Kaguya the way of the nobility. She constantly reminds her how a princess must be to be truly happy.
Despite not really having a plot, the film is excellent at subverting expectations. It cleverly does this in moments that feel the most human. Even though I had no idea where the overall story was heading, I felt like I knew all those moments right away. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya just effortlessly absorbs you, into a world with situations that just feel incredibly relatable. I found myself unexpectedly on edge and highly invested at times when I just thought the movie was losing me. The final act does feel vastly different from the rest of the film. It almost felt as if the film forgot its own supernatural premise and then tried to find a way back to it. However, even that can be interpreted as the supernatural and the real coexisting with one another.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a rare timeless masterpiece that pushes the boundaries of filmmaking, with a story as unconventional as its use of watercolor. Its unbelievably good animation and many intriguing themes, make it one of my favorite animated movies of the last decade.