The teardrop explodes
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, animated fantasy/drama, rated PG, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles As part of its Ghibli Celebration, which includes five classic films by Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli, the Center for Contemporary Arts features a premiere screening of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, a poetic, beautifully animated feature with plenty of the magic for which the studio is known. Directed by Isao Takahata, this film is his best since Grave of the Fireflies (1988), and this English version features a stellar cast that includes voice work by Lucy Liu, George Segal, Beau Bridges, and Oliver Platt, among others.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya tells the sweeping, epic tale of a supernatural princess who is born in a bamboo shoot and discovered by Okina, a kindly bamboo cutter (voiced by James Caan). Small enough at first to fit in the palm of his hand, the foundling transforms into a human infant before his very eyes. Okina and his wife (voiced by Mary Steenburgen, who also narrates), name her Kaguya and raise her as their own daughter. Later, when Okina discovers gold in the bamboo stand, he takes it as a sign of Kaguya’s royalty and uses his newfound riches to set her up in a palatial residence in the region’s capital. Meanwhile, Kaguya (Chloë Grace Moretz), who was living a free-spirited, active life with her close friend, Sutemaru ( Glee’s Darren Criss), in the bamboo cutter’s humble village, has grown amazingly — supernaturally — quickly into a beautiful young lady. In time, numerous suitors vie for her hand.
The simple story is rich with contrasts between Princess Kaguya’s idyllic childhood and the oppressively staid life she leads in the royal court at the capital, where custom and formality rule over feelings. The setup makes for a critique of women’s roles in Japanese society. Working methodically at her loom, Kaguya steadfastly rejects each of her suitors — even the emperor — much to the chagrin of Okina, who, coming to envision himself as an aristocrat, clumsily and comically puts on airs. Even the emperor cannot sway Kaguya’s heart, and she grows more and more despondent. She appeals to the moon for help, setting up the film’s concluding chapters, in which myth and fairy-tale enchantments take center stage and the princess’ spiritual origins and reason for being on earth (a punishment for a past sin) are finally made known. Kaguya wants only to return to Sutemaru, for whom she feels the most love.
Takahata has crafted a film that is enchanting, if at times slow and overly long for young children. The animation is hand-drawn in soft watercolors that lend the story a bucolic feel. The themes of free will and the longings of the heart, even when they go against destiny, lend later scenes a somber melancholy. Kaguya wants her happiness, and we cannot help but want it for her. Larger themes emerge, such as the transience of our existence. One can only wonder if the gifts awaiting us in the realm of the divine are any greater than those here on earth. The answer comes in the form of a falling tear.
— Michael Abatemarco