RCGS Movie Review: Princess Kaguya as a Window to Normal Human Life

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Japanese animation or anime paradoxically exhibits the best and worst of Japan.  The worst of anime showcases Japanese sadism, perversity, neurosis, and the idolization of technical and blind subservience to arbitrary authoritarian rule. The best of anime takes Japanese and Western folk tales, blending them into modern sci-fi and soap opera narratives. It is true that a lot of anime, although distinctly Japanese is also distinctly American.  On one hand, American culture has done more damage to Japan than Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or the firebombing of Tokyo were ever able to do. But, strangely, the Japanese having digested American pop culture usually makes something a little bit better. Japan has appropriated European folk tales and genres of our high art into their video games, movies, and toys for generations and done so in a quirky yet brilliant way. The story of the knight errant in search of the damsel in distress of the Western chivalric romance gets mixed with the working class everyday hero and the movie King Kong and we have video game Donkey Kong, which itself leads to the equally brilliant and fun Super Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong Country.  In addition to the work of Nintendo luminaries such as Shigeru Miyamoto, other Japanese artists have created masterpieces, drawing from the old and the new and from East and West. Among the most fertile centers of Japanese creativity is Studio Ghibli.

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The center of Studio Ghibli and its most brilliant craftsman has always been Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki has produced the magnificent although deeply and dangerously occultic Spirited Away as well as the ecological fable Princess Mononoke, his two greatest works in addition to slightly New Age My Neighbor Totoro, the woodland creature, which has become the Japanese equivalent to Mickey Mouse in its popularity and ubiquity in plush form.  While there has been some concern that Ghibli might falter after the departure of the elder Miyazaki, a new Academy Award winning Ghibli production has dispelled doubts.

One of Ghibli’s most recent works is the Tale of Princess Kaguya, directed by Isao Takahata, an elderly gentleman who founded Ghibli with Miyazaki. Based on the traditional Japanese story of “The Bamboo Cutter’s Daughter,” Princess Kaguya tells the story of a peasant bamboo cutter who finds a young fairy in a bamboo stalk. He brings the fairy home, and she turns into a baby whom the bamboo cutter and his wife raise. The baby grows rapidly and makes friend with the children of the village. Eventually, the bamboo cutter begins to find gold and fine garments among the bamboo, which he takes to be gifts from the gods. The bamboo cutter assumes that the gods intend for Kaguya to be raised as a wealthy princess, so the bamboo cutter buys her a palace in Tokyo to which he moves her to train her as a princess. Kaguya is miserable in her excessively formal atmosphere and is courted by perverted officials and noblemen. Finally, it is learned that Kaguya is an inhabitant of the moon, and she reluctantly returns to the moon after being whisked away by a group of moon people.

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What makes Princess Kaguya so hauntingly irresistible is its deeply earthy and conservative view of human life. As a girl on the mountain, Kaguya spends her days happily foraging and laboring with her friends and family. The other villagers are craftsmen who labor with nature to produce useful works of art such as rice bowls. Interwoven into the tribal structure of the village, Kaguya is thoroughly integrated in nature while at the same time using human technology at the service of human life. Kaguya’s life in the country is contrasted with the hectic, progressive and debauched city life that nearly destroys her.

Throughout her time in Tokyo, Kaguya must adapt to excessively formal and bizarre rituals that attack and suffocate the body and soul as opposed to grooming and disciplining them as authentic rituals should. The defining image of this unnatural, trendy mutilation is the desire to have Kaguya’s eyebrows plucked and have her teeth painted black to which she finally reluctantly concedes. Her father and mother also wear the makeup and outrageous costumes, which humorously frustrate their range of motion and make them look like frightening clown dolls.  However, drawn to the natural life of the oikos, Kaguya’s mother retreats to the kitchen where she maintains a garden is able to living the life of a simple peasant woman—Kaguya herself transforms the garden into a miniature model of the mountain in which they lived. The atomization and stuffiness of the city draws Kaguya into melancholy retreat until she cries for help from the moon when assaulted by the emperor.

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The worst of Princess Kaguya, and this may be something that appears in the American version more than the Japanese, is the “girls just want to have fun” attitude of Kaguya, which makes seem like at times more like an obnoxious Full House cast member than a moon princess turned earth peasant. What is more, while still maintaining a basic meditative calm, the movie is much more fast paced than most Ghibli movies. While certainly not Christian, Ghibli’s movies are deeply Zen in a not necessarily religious so much as poetic like the tradition of Japanese lyricism. While we catch glimpses of this during Kaguya’s time on the mountain, much of her time Tokyo is spend hectically running around—but perhaps that is Takahata’s point. Finally, there are strange occultic elements, not nearly so pronounced as Mononoke or Spirited Away, which may upset many Christians.

Japan is still, by and large, an organic traditional society and Ghibli’s works like Goro Miyazaki’s very good but not brilliant From Up on Poppy Hill and the melancholy masterpiece Whisper of the Heart, show young Japanese dwelling amidst a hyper-technological Tokyo that still maintains the core of human life in the natural landscapes and pagan temples that dot the urban landscape as well as in the vision of the young people in the films who are able to see beauty amidst the concrete ugliness of the modern world. RCGM can only highly recommend seeing the film although young American children may be scandalized by frequent baby nudity and breast feeding in the film, and those sensitive to the occult should avoid watching it.

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