28 March 2015

A Little Princess

When I visited Tokyo last year, one of my biggest disappointments was not having time to pay a visit to the Ghibli Museum. Regular readers will know that my favourite films tend to be dark dramas and political and crime thrillers, but that doesn't mean that I don't have a real appreciation for the Japanese animation studio's movies, especially the delightful Ponyo. The latest Ghibli film is The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, which, unlike most of the others that I've seen, is directed by Isao Takahata rather than Hayao Miyazaki.

Princess Kaguya is a beautiful, joyful and unique film, based on a Japanese folk story called The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. As the film opens, an elderly bamboo cutter (voiced in the English version by James Caan) discovers a tiny but perfectly formed princess inside a bamboo stalk. He takes her home to his wife (voiced by Mary Steenburgen) and the princess transforms to a baby, who they agree to raise as their own.

The bamboo cutter believes the child (Chloƫ Grace Moretz) was given to him so that he could raise her as a princess and, aided by a mound of gold, also provided by the ethereal bamboo grove, he builds a beautiful mansion in the closest big city. She would have preferred to stay in the countryside, frolicking with a group of local boys, including Sutemaru (Darren Criss), but grudgingly goes to the city to please her parents. There, she is transformed by a series of advisors from the palace into a noble girl, and is given the name Princess Kaguya by one of the emperor's name-givers. The inevitable series of would-be suitors come by to woo her, but Kaguya demands that they prove themselves by bringing her the beautiful, rare and perhaps non-existent treasures to which they have all compared her. Meanwhile, she dreams of her old life on the mountain and those happy years with Sutemaru.

The film is so beautifully drawn, with immaculate attention to detail, and it is a pleasure to watch. It is, however, pretty long, clocking in at 2h17, which might be off-putting to younger audiences. The final 45 minutes, in particular, dragged a little as I waited for the film to reach its — unexpected, admittedly — climax. Princess Kaguya is also far from a feminist tale: our heroine's wishes and dreams must always come second to her duty to her parents and to society, which is, of course, partly a cultural thing. Sure, the bamboo cutter is acting out of what he thinks are the best interests of his daughter, but he never listens to what she actually thinks or wants.

I tried to learn a little Japanese prior to my trip last year and I've just done a refresher course, so I had hoped to see Princess Kaguya in Japanese with English subtitles, but the ICA screening I went to was dubbed into English. Overall, I thought the dubbing worked well, but one thing that did jar slightly was James Caan's accent. Caan is a brilliant actor, but his distinctive New Yawk drawl seemed discordant with the delicate beauty of the film, and I found this distracting.

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