Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Audient Anime: The Tale of Princess Kaguya

This is the fifth in my 2017 bi-monthly series watching anime.

I thought when I finally got away from Miyazaki viewings after June, I might at least sample a smattering of different anime directors for the rest of the series. But nope. In October I watched my second straight film directed by Isao Takahata, who has proven just as much of a master as Miyazaki -- both in ways that are similar and in ways that are different.

There was almost nothing of Miyazaki in my August film Only Yesterday, a wholly realistic contemplation on memory and the restorative powers of the countryside. There's considerably more in The Tale of Princess Kaguya, a 2013 film that was doing the critical rounds in the western world last year, which found its way to me via the library. (As have all the movies in this series, I suppose.) This one features a princess born out of a bamboo shoot who then turns into a baby and grows at an alarming speed, which I suppose has Miyazaki written all over it. But it's different in one key way: the animation. This is a sketchy, almost experimental, impressionistic style that deviates from the standard Studio Ghibli look, as you can see from the poster. I was a fan of it, but not overly -- more than anything it just struck me as different for different's sake.

The princess of the title is found by a bamboo cutter and raised by him and his wife. The bamboo cutter later finds gold and cloth forthcoming from the magical bamboo, as the young (but increasingly less young) princess develops relationships with the young children. Her life's adventure eventually takes her into the city, where her parents believe she will better live the life befitting a princess, and where she earns the attentions of five suitors who want to marry her, and all go on different quests to try to do so. Throughout she displays abilities that could possibly be construed as magic, or possibly a dream, or possibly just an indefinable plane of existence woven within the overall narrative.

I've given you the story in sort of broad strokes for two reasons: 1) This is a movie that dwells on fine details within larger and largely unimportant broad narratives strokes, and 2) I started this 137-minute movie after 9 p.m., foolishly, on a Sunday in which I had been single parenting my kids all day. Because I was not watching it with them (a venture I abandoned after the third movie in this series), I also watched it in Japanese with subtitles, so when I was dozing off (as I did quite regularly), I would miss little bits of dialogue here and there. I had to go back and read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia just now to be sure I had not missed many of the details. I had not, but it's so loosely plotted that you feel like there should be details you've missed. This is a slow and deliberate film that lets you swim in the magic.

Swim I did, and yet I felt strangely uninvolved. I always felt there should be something "more" to The Tale of Princess Kaguya, even as I have adjusted myself to the deliberately slower pace of many if not most of the anime films I've watched this year. In the end I was swept enough away by the general beauty of it -- really, it's quite distinct -- that I awarded it four stars. But I felt compelled to give it 3.5, simply because I never had a moment of transcendence while watching it. Only Yesterday left me similarly disengaged for a while before I suddenly "got it" and clicked in, and by the end I was enthusiastic enough for 4.5 stars. Kaguya never quite clicked in to the same degree, though it does have a really nice denouement that has stuck with me.

What I'm discovering about the anime I've watched is that it's got a very high floor. Out of five films so far, two have received a perfect five stars, one has received 4.5, and two have received four. Maybe I've just chosen well, but it seems like anime movies -- the ones that tend to be made available outside Japan, that is -- start at a really high level of quality and then just go up. So this has been an incredibly rewarding series so far. Kaguya just doesn't happen to have been the most rewarding film I've seen.

And I've got only one left. I think I know what December's viewing is, but I won't reveal it to you in case plans change. Plans have changed more than once in this series already, and as suggested above, that has ended up working out quite well so far.

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