The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Here’s an example of the real world interfering with the experience of watching a movie, and I think that’s okay to report that, because this is a blog about experiences and not a review blog. I had been looking forward to seeing Isao Takahata’s final film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, for most of the year. It’s the last in this year’s Ghiblifest from Fathom Events, and if you missed it last evening, you can see it subtitled in many cities on December 18.

But then, you’ll notice the blog went dormant for a few days earlier this month. That’s because I had surgery on my spine. Since returning from the hospital, we haven’t all three been curled up on the sofa watching things together. Marie and our son have been curled up on the sofa, while I’ve been sitting up straight in a fairly comfortable chair, squirming because, after half an hour or so, it isn’t comfortable enough. And The Tale of the Princess Kaguya isn’t a short film, it’s nearly two and a half hours long. Two and a half beautiful hours, mind you – the film’s design deliberately evokes the picture scrolls where folk tales in Japan unrolled a thousand years ago, with expanses of white skies, careful drops of color for the leaves, and delicate, intricate linework for the figures – but that’s a long time for a fellow with little steel rods in his back to sit still.

With a palette and look that’s unlike any other movie in Ghibli’s library, Kaguya is an unusual standout that doesn’t seem to attract the attention of that studio’s American fans. Every other Fathom Events screening that we’ve attended, even of other Takahata films, drew a far bigger crowd than this did last night. The big names sell out, and even Arrietty was about two-thirds full. Last night it was just us and a group of about eight guys and girls in their twenties. What a shame; I hope more people see it tomorrow night, because it’s a beautiful experience.

The movie is an adaptation of a classic folk tale. An old bamboo cutter finds a tiny, doll-sized girl dressed as a princess inside a stalk. She turns into a human baby, growing very fast, and a second visit to the forest gives the old man gold and beautiful robes. He believes that whatever spirit brought them this child wants the couple to raise her as royalty. So he buys a mansion in the capital and hires servants to train her in the formality of proper behavior. When she comes of age, she is given the name “Kaguya” and attracts wealthy, noble suitors. But nobody asked her what she herself wants, or where she came from, or how long she’ll be staying on Earth.

Well, I completely loved it. I think it’s a gorgeous film and I love the way the style and the speed of the editing changes so radically at key points. It’s a classic fairy tale with an inevitable end, and so spending two and a half hours in the company of kind-hearted people with good intentions, rather than the five minutes it might take to just tell the story, means that the ending is very depressing despite its honesty and beauty. Our son thought it was extremely sad and it left him in low spirits for a while, but some occasional light gags and mild comedy kept his attention even though this experience was a little outside his wheelhouse.

And you’ll be glad to know that I was all kinds of sore but I made it out of the comfy Regal seat all right. We’ll go back to the same theater in a week and I’ll be in even better shape next time.

Image credit: Film Ireland

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