Oscars!: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya


Movie: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Oscar Nominations: Best Animated Feature Film

Disclaimer: I saw the Japanese language version with subtitles, not the dubbed version for American audiences. 

Princess Kaguya is set during the Heian period of Japan. Kaguya is discovered by a woodcutter as a perfect tiny person in a bamboo stalk, whom he brings home, where she transforms into an infant. He and his wife, being older and having no children, adopt her and raise her as their own -- except that she grows super fast, is very precocious, and he keeps finding things in the bamboo stalks like gold and rich robes for her. Eventually he decides that he is supposed to take her to the capital and ensure that she is raised like a noble princess, and from there her life takes a downturn. She is changed from the carefree child to a beautiful proper Heian lady who is always sad. When suitors come calling, however, that is when the story becomes complicated and the truth of the little bamboo baby is revealed.

Kaguya is simply gorgeous. That has to be stated outright. Studio Ghibli films are often visually arresting, but this one has the feel not as much of Ghibli's regular look, but of the traditional Yamato-e style of the period. The work is a fine blend of the two looks, and I really found it enjoyable to watch. The early sections with Kaguya as a baby are very cheerful and funny to watch, while the somber and gorgeous latter half makes it difficult to look away.

Which leads me to this next point -- this film is long. 137 minutes. We watched it with the kids, and while they both got through it (a testament to how good it is) we were all pretty tired by the end of it, and we hadn't really budgeted our time well because didn't check the length before we started it. Also, Kaguya is not really calibrated for American child-friendliness. Kaguya gets her period ("comes of age"), and there's talk of seductions and a marriage plot that little ones may not follow well. Also, all the babies run around mostly naked -- which isn't a big problem, since they're babies, but it means that boy babies have not-emphasized penises and women who are breastfeeding have breasts and that sort of thing. All natural, not sexualized, but present in a way that American culture doesn't typically encourage.

Kaguya is, essentially, a Japanese fairy tale about identity and changing seasons and growth and love and death and loss. It is not a Disney film. It has things to say about women and their roles that I struggle with, which is not something I was expecting when I sat down to this. I actually have a hard time placing it in the same category as How to Train Your Dragon 2 or Big Hero 6, because they are fundamentally such different types of movies. Animation should not be the deciding factor here. I'm going to have to think more about this one before I can decide how I feel about whether it should win the category it's in.

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