Monday, March 9, 2015

Review: The Tale Of Princess Kaguya

Sometimes I think Hollywood gets a bit too caught up in their fancy new toys.  Over the past few weeks I've seen multiple "did you catch these background details" clips on Youtube regarding films like Big Hero 6, I have to say I honestly don't care if they managed to put a statue dedicated to Olaf in San Fransokyo- actually, scratch that.  I -do- care because it makes no sense.

It's a post for a future date, but to me, an Easter Egg only works if it has a meaning and fits in the context of the story.  The hints about the snitch in Reservoir Dogs, the clues in Fight Club, the hidden language in Futurama, they all fit in the context of the story.  Just tossing in a hint of another movie might be cute (the hat from Spinal Tap showing up in the kid's room in The Princess Bride) but to have something that just doesn't fit annoys me.

I think part of the problem is that CG is a lot easier these days, allowing people to cram as many details as they want into any given scene.  You start needing to fill every empty spot or it feels like a waste of space.  I think this takes away from certain films, because you can get overwhelmed by the constant flood of information.  Video games have the same issue sometimes, where they spend so much time making sure it's as detailed and gorgeous as possible, but the game play suffers.

Then something simple comes along and shocks the system by remembering just how great something can be without needing to cram everything possible into a scene.  Such is the case with The Tale of Princess Kaguya, quite possibly the most gorgeous and visually stunning movie I've seen since Life of Pi.

The story of Princess Kaguya is an old one.  Really, really old, in fact.  We're talking "tenth century," and quite possibly the oldest piece of Japanese prose narrative.  A humble bamboo farmer discovers a tiny girl inside a piece of bamboo.  Taking her home, she changes from a delicate tiny princess into a normal-sized baby before their eyes, and then continues to age quickly over time.  The bamboo farmer is determined to have his new daughter (nobody questions how these two suddenly have a baby, they're essentially the Japanese Kents and this girl is their Clark) grow up with only the finest things and be a real princess, while his wife (and, indeed, daughter) simply want a basic life like they had when she was little.

I'm going to go more into the story in a bit, but I want to focus on a few things.  First, I suppose I should list one of the movie's flaws, because a lot of the rest of this review is going to look like I'm simply gushing and raving about this film.  I do feel the need to point out, however, that the movie is long.  The reason it's long is because it's also quite slow.  It's not a huge action-packed film, it's instead a study of the life of a girl who just happened to be born in a stalk of bamboo.  We see things through her eyes as the world first tries to understand what she is and then move on to trying to shape her into what it thinks she should b-

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The film is over two hours long, and at times it feels like it.  There are moments where you're watching and you're silently wishing they'd move on to another scene.  A slow ride in a cart through a field, a long speech by a possible suitor for the (still young but more grown up) Princess, little touches of animation drawn out too long here or there.  They all start to pull your attention away from the film, but it's in these moments that you start to notice some of the details.

The details, of course, bring us to the art, and in an age of CG it's completely refreshing to have a movie that looks like every frame was hand-painted.  You can almost see each brush stroke that went into every second of the artwork, and that's because it is hand-painted.

Somehow, without the detail-work allowable with computers in modern films, Isao Takahata spent eight years drawing this movie by hand, and while there are heartfelt moments in a movie like Big Hero 6, this movie manages to find a way to reach in and tug at your emotions with more simple and, though I'm loathe to use the term, "pure" techniques.

There are moments of artistic brilliance in this movie, unlike anything I've seen before, and I've seen some extremely pretentious artistic films that gave up story for "vision."  Moments like a baby attempting to imitate a frog's style of movement, a slow, despondent walk through a snowy field, or the main character spinning underneath a tree are expertly crafted.

Yes, I did three animated gifs here.  That's only because I couldn't find one really long one containing the entire scene.
As Princess Kaguya ages, we get a story that could be the basis for any number of feminist (and I don't use the term disparagingly) and cultural thesis papers.  Princess Kaguya is a prisoner inside her mansion, restricted to a life dictated by powerful men.  She's told all the things proper women do not do ("laugh" is one that she finds particularly hard to wrap her mind around) and then shaped into this form.  Her own father, of course, doesn't mean for any harm to befall his daughter and loves her very much, but his ideas of what she "should be" to be truly happy do not necessarily exist in her mind.

However, we also see a character willing to attack the system where she can.  When multiple suitors appear to court her, she challenges each one with a seemingly impossible task, and when the ruler himself expresses interest in her as a bride, she initially refuses to see him, and when later runs from him when he shows up to claim her.  It's when she has managed to break the rules and be herself and be free (see: the above pictures) that we see her when she's at her happiest, and a more pure (again, I hate using that term) expression of joy I can't remember seeing in film in ages.

There are also dark moments, one scene in particular stands out as ground-breaking in its technique.  Though I'm sure someone has altered the style animation to reflect what's going through a character's head, a moment where Kaguya flees her own mansion stands out as possibly one of the best.  In fact, I know others do exist, usually taking a dream-like and faded look when a character is either tired or "high" for lack of a better term.  There was also the pink elephant scene from Dumbo, but I think this film still does it better.

The sharp, pointed lines mix with speed and jerkiness to create a heightened sense of anger and frustration, as if the entire world is reshaping itself around Kaguya's mood.  Her own movements are quick and jerky, as she's not concerned so much with grace and poise as she simply wants to get away.  Even the moon jerks around in the sky as her posture rises and falls as she runs.

There's such frantic motion in that scene that you really get a sense of the character's movement.  Movement is hard to animate when it's done quickly, partly because (as touched on before) CG advancements allow everything to be seen, so you can't simply have quick, panicked motions, you still need smooth flow to a character's movements or the model breaks.

While I wouldn't recommend the movie for those who simply want high-flying action and adventure through their movie (there's really only twp "fight" scenes, and they're both so one-sided they hardly count), but anybody who has watched other movies come through Studio Ghibli knows that they're extremely skilled at taking your emotions and playing them like a master would a violin.

I watched The Tale of Princess Kaguya, and when the lead character smiled, I felt warm inside.  When she was sad, I felt for her.  There was more than one moment where my heart broke completely, and I moved over near a window to simply sit and stare at the moon in the sky overhead, thinking about the movie I had just experienced.

For the record, there's a lot of debate about the result of the Academy Awards.  Many felt this film was slighted, especially after documents were released showing that at least one person who was voting in the "best animated feature" simply didn't get why two "obscure freakin' Chinese f<censored>ing things" were even nominated (for the record, the best anybody can approximate is they were talking about The Tale Of Princess Kaguya, which was Japanese, and Song of the Sea, which was Irish) over, say, The Lego Movie.

For the record, I haven't yet seen Song of the Sea (but I want to!), but I have seen Big Hero 6, The Lego Movie, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya.

If I had to pick which movie should win, I'm not sure I could.  I think that visually this one beats out Big Hero 6 on many levels and does a better job working with the audience's emotions, though Big Hero 6's primary story of loss and grief also connects quite well.  I know many American audience members might be thrown off with how "Japanese" the story of Princess Kaguya is (which gets more and more divergent from standard American storytelling as the film gets closer to the end), but I'm not sure "more easily accessible to local audiences" means a film is "better."

Honestly, I'd put my vote on Princess Kaguya, if only because I think it was better structured in many ways and truly came off as a unique piece of film.  I loved Big Hero 6, but it fell back on so many classic story tropes that there were times I really felt I had seen parts of the movie before (and could probably tell you where I had, to boot!).

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