#1 The most beautiful movie in years
It has been a while since I started up a movie and was immediately hooked in. Even before any plot happened or even a word was spoken, the visual style and sheer beauty of The Tale of The Princess Kaguya instantly captured my heart.
This movie is unlike anything else, even within Ghibli’s prestigious library of top tier features. The hand-drawn style was guaranteed to stand out in this day and age, but the boundless amount of detail, the beautiful movement of it all, and the gorgeous colors all contributed to a presentation that left me genuinely stunned. No wonder the movie took 8 years to produce.
To see this kind of art in a mainstream movie as opposed to some niche arthouse film—or a naughty Shaft romcom—was amazing, and I am overjoyed that it was received as well as it did.
#2 Japanese folklore made palatable
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is an adaptation of a centuries-old, Japanese folktale about an old man who one day finds a tiny girl in a bamboo stalk out in the forest. As he takes her home, the little sprite turns into a human baby who then rapidly ages into a beautiful, young woman. Noblemen across the country become enchanted by her and soon she even draws the affection of the emperor himself.
I don’t like Japanese folklore very much and, surprisingly, it seems director Isao Takahata agrees with me. In interviews about this movie, Takahata expressed that the original story mystified him as a kid because it was more focused on the magical storyline than the actual character of Kaguya. This movie thus shifts the balance and spends a lot of time on showing how Kaguya grows as a person and interpreting how she’d react to the events that unfold in her life.
There’s this beautiful scene early on in the movie where Kaguya bonds with her childhood friends and family as she plays around the house. As she finally stands up and takes her first steps, seeing the overwhelmed joy in her father was touching in a way that no other adaptation of Japanese folklore ever managed to achieve. It still tells a story rich in Japanese culture and traditional themes, but it’s not afraid to add to it or present elements in a way that is more relevant for our modern time.
#3 A touching romance story
While a lot of the early portion of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is dedicated to her childhood and early development, the latter half develops into a romantic tragedy that benefits greatly from having an emotionally complex protagonist now.
Kaguya is reluctantly shoved into a life she never asked for or anticipated, where she is overwhelmed by the shallow attention of countless men. Things escalate with increasingly powerful lords and councilors vying for her attention, only to find Kaguya unreceptive to the poetic rambles that usually have womenfolk wetting their 10th-century undergarments.
It’s an interesting development for the story that introduces themes of court drama into the mix, and even at the time of its original writing it must’ve been empowering to have a female protagonist defy fictionalized authority figures like this. The movie certainly goes along with the mystique of making Kaguya an unattainable beauty, but it also gives her much agency and becomes increasingly about her frustration and exasperation at being treated like a prize. One of the most well-remembered scenes from the movie is an artistic and incredibly dynamic scene of an enraged Kaguya fleeing her palace as drunken relevers harass her father to let them see his allegedly-beautiful daughter.
This romantic side to the story remains present throughout the film, culminating in a very well-rounded finale after plenty of tear-jerking developments that preceded it. This may honestly be my favorite Ghibli film to date and there’s not many potential competitors left who could displace it.