An infant is secreted away and raised by peasants in obscurity. Though life is laborious, her cheer attracts even the scruffiest of woodland friends. Omens hint at grander destiny, though. Little does our heroine know, she’s actually been a princess this whole time. With a dash of magical intervention, she quickly trades rags for riches and reclaims her royal title, earning fame as “fairest of them all.”
This premise fits many of Disney’s princess movies and it’s had a major comeback–most recently with the hugely successful Cinderella remake. It fits the Tale of Princess Kaguya, as well. But even though Studio Ghibli’s penultimate feature film wasn’t advertised as such, it’s actually a sharp antidote to this archetype…
Isao Takahata’s film came and went in America, getting a perfunctory Oscar animation nod, but not engendering as much discussion as The Wind Rises did a year prior. Sadly, that’s what generally happens for any Ghibli release not directed by Miyazaki.
Perhaps it was the marketing. The American trailer makes it look a quaint and straightforward fairy tale, with the unusual brush stroke style being the major selling point. While the flourish that consciously evoking feudal-era illustration is certainly marvelous, sharper hooks lie in the critique of celebrity.
We’ve seen Disney princesses rebel against the prim and proper roles assigned to them, and this does have funny scenes where our heroine frazzles her etiquette coach by preferring to run around in the dirt. However, it takes several steps beyond shenanigans, and dwells on the existential burden a real girl would feel after being put on such an elevated pedestal.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya‘s critique cuts sharpest in two scenes, and it’s tough to discuss either without giving too much away. (Then again, this is an adaptation of Japan’s oldest folk tale, so any spoiler moratorium should’ve expired a long time ago). It’s not the plot particulars that matter, so much as the angle Takahata takes on them.
Almost as soon the princess makes her debut, word of her beauty spreads, and suitors literally line up around the block in hopes of wooing her. Before long, the five richest men in the city come courting. The center piece of the original fairy tale sees Kaguya challenging them to retrieve five impossibly-rare treasures to win her hand. They all re-soundly fail, illustrating just how truly unattainable she is.
Here, we see the scene entirely from her perspective and get a far more human sense of her motivations. At their courtly audience, these older men first liken her beauty to those impossibly-rare treasures, even while she’s hidden behind a screen, and none of them actually see her face. They’re literally just pursuing the idea of her. Naturally, the princess finds it all utterly silly, and as a joke, calls their bluff.
True to the story, the suitors take her jest seriously. Some try to deceive her with counterfeits, and she laughs at their underhandedness. However, when word comes that one suitor actually died in his pursuit, her smile drops, and she’s hit by a horrible sense of guilt. Not only did the man lose his life for an illusion, she pushed him to do, if only flippantly. And the weight of being a sought-after prize is suddenly conveyed in very troubling and visceral terms.
That weight builds toward the finale, as Kaguya dreams more and more of escaping royal courts and returning to modest country life. Her last vision is cut short, though, when she learns that the royalty of the Moon is coming to reclaim her. After this, she forestalls any further courting sessions, not wanting to waste her last days on Earth entertaining any more dashing princes. She’d rather spend it entirely with the people who truly know her–the humble parents who’ve raised her from peasant to princess.
Soon enough, the Buddha and his entourage do come, descending from the heavens, and every flailing attempt to keep the princess from her destiny is easily thwarted. Her parents fortify their palace into a guarded fortress, but the Buddha merely flies over the fortifications. She begs for more time with her family, but only gets fleeting seconds with them before her memories are erased.
By the end, the princess is taken up to the Moon on a cloud, and it might as well be a pumpkin coach carting her off to the loftiest of ivory towers. Her attendants assure her that she’ll be free of all Earthly impurities where she’s going (which, in so many words, is the promise of every rags-to-riches fantasy). She can’t help but look back to her parents on Earth as leaves, tears in her eyes, wishing for anything other than greatness and fame. To become a legend is to accept a sentence, it seems.
Image Credits: GKIDS, Inc.