Thursday, November 13, 2014

Movie Review: The Tale of Princess Kaguya

I was under the impression that this movie had a one-night only showing in DC and was unhappy that I wouldn't have a chance to see it, until I checked back a week later and discovered it was a one week showing so I still had time! (and right after I bought this ticket I realized another location had opened up for the next week with a possibly even cheaper ticket price, curses) The movie won't be playing long in the rest of the country either so I bumped this up my reviewing queue a bit and let's get to it!

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Once upon a time, a poor bamboo cutter stumbled upon an oddly glowing bamboo stalk and when he cut it open discovered a miniature person inside. Upon taking her home she becomes a baby and grows just as quickly as the bamboo that birthed her and lives a happy childhood. But the bamboo has also given her new father gifts of money and fine fabric and he sets off to find a way to raise her as the princess from heaven he's always believed she is.

I am a reviewer who reads other reviewers works, this is not unusual but because of it I knew that going in I was unlikely to fall in love with this film which is a bit of an odd situation. Like everyone else out there I have limited free time so I try to only  go for movies, book, etc that I think I'm going to really enjoy or at least really enjoying thinking and talking about afterwards. So much has already been said about this movie that I doubt I'm contributing anything more to the conversation but, as weird as it sounds, the easiest way for me to see this film was to go to a limited theatrical release and at least have the bonus of seeing it on the big screen, the only other time I've ever done that for a Ghibli film was for Howl's Moving Castle quite a few years ago. And unfortunately for some reason I'm just less fond of the more recent Studio Ghibli works, while I wasn't as frustrated with the movie as I was with HMC I did leave the theater feeling exactly the way I expected to, lukewarm and confused how a movie that took so many years to make was ultimately so weak.

The movie clocks in at 2 hours 17 minutes and I feel as if I've been saying this a lot recently but I do think that the movie could have been slimed down just a tad and been stronger for it, I can't really say the pacing was bad since the progression of time in the story itself is just odd. The story spends quite a bit of time when the princess is a little girl growing up near the wood-carvers (I should have expected that this was all going to be a set-up for a later romance but had really hoped it wouldn't go that way) and you can sort of get a sense of the passage of time there but once she moves to the capital it's impossible. There are so few changes in her appearance and behavior, and no changes in the background scenery, that if the story hadn't explicitly mentioned that there was a three year time-skip at one point I would have assumed that the entire story so far had taken place in under a year. I'm not an unobservant viewer, I hope this blog stands as proof of that, so if I'm having this much trouble following merely a change in seasons I think there was a real problem here.

The pacing wasn't the only part of the movie that didn't work for me, I've already mentioned that the eventual sort-of-a-romance didn't work for me and neither did the surprisingly many comedic scenes. The ones early in the story relied a lot on "oh look at this thing kids do, aren't kids funny?" gags which all fell very flat for me and later on there were a number of "look they're actually country bumpkins, isn't watching them funny?" instances which just felt rote and time-fillers to me. Even the movie's most artistic moments didn't work for me, there was one scene which was clearly meant to be the crowning moment of animation and art and yet I felt like the transition from the previous scene to that one was forced at best and downright incomprehensible at worst and spending a visually stunning scene going "but wait, why did this even happen?" is a mood killer. 

As for the visuals, they are easily the best part of the movie and why it took so long (like with Avatar, clearly they didn't spend these years and years refining the story) and I don't have anything to offer to that conversation that others haven't already said. I was surprised to see that character designs ran the full gamut from moderately realistic to completely cartoony and it was the art that cleared up one question I had had about the story ever since I was in elementary school and first read it. In the story, Princess Kaguya dreads going back to the Moon since that would mean forgetting all of her time on Earth and I had completely forgotten that in Japanese, like English, "heaven" can mean both the afterlife and the sky. Princess Kaguya makes full uses of this double meaning by having the heavenly retinue, that comes down from the sky for her, be filled with Buddhist imagery and a basic idea in Buddhism is giving up Earthly desires in order to reach that higher plain of existence beyond suffering and pain (to really condense the idea). The movie did clear this up for me which was rather nice but then introduced a new problem for me, one that I believe was present in the original story as well, if that's the ultimate goal then why did they shower her with money and fine fabric to raise her like a princess? She is a princess on the moon which doesn't make my interpretation work so well if the people of the Moon believe in forgetting all memories of Earth but still engage in very worldly/material practices. But that's more of a complaint I have with the original story than the movie, I suspect I'll remember this movie for a while but I have no urge to recommend it even for it's art, it's just too bland to be worth spending time on.