The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 153 – The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya 1

Many people complained about this year’s Oscars, mainly because of race. However, the awards have lots of problems. I would argue that one of them is that when it comes to the Oscar for “Best Animated Feature Film”, you can be almost certain that no matter how good the other nominations are, the award will go to Disney/Pixar.

This was seemingly most evident in 2014, which was won by Big Hero 6, where many people complained that The Lego Movie was snubbed because it was not even considered for nomination. However, it could also be that other films that were nominated were unjustly overlooked, including Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, directed by Isao Takahata, released in November 2013, and noted for its use of hand-drawn animation. The evidence for its claim for being snubbed was that one of the judges thought that the film was Chinese.

The film is an adaptation of the classic Japanese folk story known as “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. It begins with the said bamboo cutter chopping down a bamboo shoot, and discovers a young girl inside it, who he believes to be divine. He takes the girl home to his wife, and together they raise the girl who they call “Princess”. However, they experience some problems: namely that like bamboo, she grows very quickly. So quickly in fact that the other children who live nearby call her “Little Bamboo”, including Sutemaru, the eldest of the children who begins to fall in love with her.

The bamboo cutter then finds more things in the bamboo, such as fine clothes and gold. Again, he takes this as a sign of the Princess’s divinity. Thus he decides to take the family away from the country and to the capital, to raise her as an actual princess. The Princess is at first hesitant, not wanting to leave her friends, and disliking the practices she has to go through in order to be a respectable woman, including painting her face white, blacking-up her teeth and using a tweezer to shorten her eyebrows. However, she eventually comes to accept her role, and is later given the name Princess Kaguya. The story continues to see her trying to strive for happiness, avoiding unsuitable men who want to marry her for she too has a fondness for Sutemaru, and coming to terms with an unwanted fate.

The most notable feature about The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is the animation. Takahata is probably the most innovative of Ghibli’s directors. He made the studio’s first entirely digitally animated film, My Neighbours the Yamadas (No. 106), and then he decided to move from up-to-date technology to something more traditional, with this hand-painted film. For us Brits, we associate hand-painted animation with things like The Snowman, which is a classic of Christmas TV, and about 30 minutes long. This film is over 2 hours long. To give you an idea of the time scale, Takahata announced that the film’s subject in 2009, so it took around 4 years to complete.

Also, like so many Studio Ghibli films, there is what we would consider to be a surprising amount of stuff that appears in it which at first you think would not be suitable for children. For example you see a nude boy, something which appeared in Takahata’s first feature film, The Little Norse Prince (No. 102) back in 1968; Kaguya herself appears naked too; and Kaguya is also breastfed by the bamboo cutter’s wife, so at one point you see her breast taken out. This is a film rated by the BBFC with a “U” ranking.

Perhaps one of the most telling things about this film is that it shows the ignorance of the people who vote for the Oscars. A report which interviewed some of the people who voted for the awards that year talked one judge, who was angry that The Lego Movie was not nominated. While that person is happily entitled to that opinion, they also ignorantly say, in relation to Princess Kaguya and the Irish animated movie Song of the Sea get nominations instead: “When a movie [The Lego Movie] is that successful and culturally hits all the right chords and does that kind of box-office — for that movie not to be in over these two obscure freakin’ Chinese fuckin’ things that nobody ever freakin’ saw?”

With levels of ignorance that great, not just confusing China with Japan, but also with Ireland, you truly to despair at the Oscars, not just for attitudes to things like race in their own country, but their cultural awareness of the entire globe.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Studio Canal.