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The Tale of the Princess Kaguya: Bringing to Life the Passion of a Rough Sketch

March 14, 2015

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya Review

This article contains spoilers. Unlike The Wind Rises, the trailers exercised some restraint, so watch the film first and come back to read this post and share your impression.

Origin

Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is loosely based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (竹取物語 Taketori Monogatari), also known as Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫 Kaguya Hime, 赫映姫 or 輝夜姫), a 10th-century Japanese folktale considered the oldest extant Japanese prose narrative (Tale of Genji is early 11th century work).

The story may also hint on the name origin of the Mount Fuji:

“Which mountain is the closest place to Heaven?”, to which one replied the Great Mountain of Suruga Province. The Emperor ordered his men to take the letter to the summit of the mountain and burn it, in the hope that his message would reach the distant princess. The men were also commanded to burn the elixir of immortality since the Emperor did not wish to live forever without being able to see her. The legend has it that the word immortality (不死 fushi, or fuji) became the name of the mountain, Mount Fuji. It is also said that the kanji for the mountain, 富士山 (literally “Mountain Abounding with Warriors”), are derived from the Emperor’s army ascending the slopes of the mountain to carry out his order. It is said that the smoke from the burning still rises to this day. (In the past, Mount Fuji was much more volcanically active.), Source

Partial list of adaptation in anime and manga:

– The Japanese manga series Queen Millennia by Leiji Matsumoto is loosely based on the story.
– A side story in the manga series Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon titled “Princess Kaguya’s Lover” (かぐや姫の恋人 “Kaguya hime no Koibito”) was inspired by the tale, where an astronomer discovers an approaching comet and dubs it “Princess Snow Kaguya”, after his romantic obsession with the Princess Kaguya legend. The comet is revealed to be an invader bent on freezing the Earth and is defeated by the Sailor Senshi.
Vocaloid song “1000 Year Time Capsule” is based on the story.
– The character Kaguya in the game Ōkami is revealed to have been discovered in a large metallic bamboo shaft. She departs for the moon inside a buried bamboo-shaped rocket.
– In the eighth Touhou Project game, Imperishable Night, Kaguya appears as the true final boss. In the game she is a fugitive hiding from the lunar capital and its emissaries. Kaguya’s spell cards (bullet patterns) are based on the impossible requests.
– The movie InuYasha the Movie: The Castle Beyond the Looking Glass is partly based on the tale.
– Naruto’s final installment, The Last: Naruto the Movie, is a loose translation of the story

However, the most interesting case is Mushishi’s Episode 14, “Inside the Cage” (Kago no Naka, 籠のなか), aired on January 29, 2006 with the corresponding manga volume four, chapter 19. I wonder if Takahata or some members of the staff actually seen this episode or read the manga.

Screenshot Gallery

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Production

If you can, I’d highly encourage you to buy a DVD/Blu-Ray disk of the film because it contains an additional documentary on film production. The production process and the amount of work it actually took are amazing! I’ll try to highlight some of the key facts from that documentary below.

Takahata submitted a planning paper about “Kaguya-hime” at Toei 50 years ago.

Toshio Suzuki: At first Takahata-san wanted to make “Heike Monogatari” (The Tale of the Heike). Akira Kurosawa also seemed to say that he wanted to make it. The reason being that the image of Japanese in its story is different from modern people. Because the outline of living and dying is clear, directors seem drawn to it. But, there are massacre scenes in the story. Though Takahata-san is a director, he cannot draw a picture. So he has to pair up with an animator. Takahata-san requested Osamu Tanabe-san. But Tanabe-san said, “I don’t want to draw a killing scene. Why must I draw such a scene?” Takahata-san persuaded Tanabe-san in various ways, but Tanabe-san said, “If I draw, I want to draw the children. I want to draw a scene with a newborn child that moves energetically.” Then I remembered that Takahata-san had said, “Japanese should make a proper Kaguya-hime.” Tanabe-san likes drawing children and Kaguya-hime is born from bamboo, grows up, then goes to the capital. We have to draw a child. So I suggested Kaguya-hime to Takahata-san. (Source)

It took 18 months for the producer Yoshiaki Nishimura to convince Takahata to start working on a project after a 14-year break, and it took eight years to finish the project. Also, Seiichiro Ujiie, one of the producers (passed away on March 28, 2011 at the age of 84), played a key role in initiating the project.

Ujiie-san spent about two and a half hours in deep concentration reading it. When I asked, “How was it?”, Ujiie-san replied, “Kaguya-hime is a selfish girl. But I like a selfish girl.” (laughs) Takahata-san was very pleased again and said, “That’s right, I’m drawing a selfish girl. Selfishness is the characteristic of the modern girl, isn’t it? I do not intend to just draw an old tale. What will a modern girl who time traveled to the Heian era do there? I thought that it is a big theme to see it.” (Source)

This is a somewhat bizarre interpretation…

– Kaguya in the film does not seem particularly selfish
– Not all modern girls are selfish!
– A modern girl would behave very differently than depicted in the film!

This is yet another illustration that sometimes what artists intend and what they create may differ, and different people will interpret the work differently. The beautiful things is that the best artists do not really know what they are doing, often working at a subconscious level. I think this is what happened in this case.

The production began with pre-recording voicing, without any art or animation, and the animation was fit to the voices. Takahata was very strict and discerning about the particular feelings the actors had to depict, requiring them to repeat the lines many times until it was just right. Even more seasoned actors like Takeo Chii, who played the bamboo cutter, had to be corrected and had to adjust their performance. Unfortunately, Takeo Chii passed away on 29 June 2012, before the release of the film in 23 November 2013.

Takahata was not satisfied with the initial versions of the music by Joe Hisaishi. Hisaishi mentioned his surprise that he never worked like this before, but, in the end, after talking with Takahata extensively and understanding the main theme of the film, he was able to come up with the appropriate accompaniment to the scenes. For example, the music for the scene where the Kaguya arrives at the mansion was too happy, based on Takahata’s perception, so he asked Hisaishi to rewrite. Also, the music for the “Joy of Life” scene at the end of the movie took substantial re-work. The end result is truly magnificent though!

Entirely new studio had to be set up for the project, Ghibli Studio 7, because the process did not involve the traditional cel animation. The process was somewhat similar to the Yamada’s style, but with Kaguya, it came to the full bloom, “a complete version” of that style.

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Takahata relied heavily on Osamu Tanabe for character drawing and storyboards. Tanabe is responsible for the expressive lines of the characters brought to life in the film, but Takahata spent a substantial time on composition and scene design.

Haven’t we seen something similar before? Of course, Takahata’s approach is unique, but it reminded me of the works by 横須賀 令子 (Reiko Yokosuka).

You may recall her work from the Winter Days. Takahata also participated in that project.

Even for Kazuo Oga, a veteran art director and background artist, the painting presented somewhat of a challenge because working with watercolors demands high precision and accounting for drying process that changes the outcome somewhat.

Also, the coloring presented a separate especially difficult challenge. There was no color palette for the film: each scene was done individually! It took up to six hours to finish color setting for one cut. The final version of the film contained 1423 cuts. That means coloring alone may have taken more than a year!

Joy of Life Scene

Takahata made a substantial change in the storyboard to make the scene less artificial by adding the running sequence. It took a very long time to design the scene, and he even wrote a concept down to clarify the thinking.

Sound

The sound effects really capture you in the very beginning: you hear the birds, movement of the trees, some background chatter. It all works very well together and accentuates the animation.

Song: Memory of Life

Takahata has an excellent sense of music. It took him a while to choose a singer. The choice fits well with the overall theme of the film: it is somewhat raw, but powerful and emotional voice by Kazumi Nikaidō (二階堂和美 Nikaidō Kazumi) who sings the film’s theme song, “Inochi no Kioku” (いのちの記憶, Memory of Life).

Here is her live performance. Note how she starts singing unannounced with people unaware of her, but then everyone gets quiet listening to her wonderful voice!🙂

Range of Emotions

The diversity of emotions is truly amazing in this film. You can see multiple expressions in a span of just a few seconds! Some expressions a bit off though and overly exaggerated, but such occurrences are rare.

Takahata: “Not just anger, but mixed with sadness and madness.”

Coherence

Everything, everything from a simple brushstroke to an entire frame to an animation sequence revolves around the central idea of joy of living, the agony and ecstasy of the human condition. Takahata specifically avoided the “clean up” stage in the animation process and emphasized the incompleteness in coloring, as well as the passion of the rough sketch.

Even the movements are different and unique. Go ahead and watch the Wind Rises and watch closely the movement. It is same old, with the familiar idiosyncratic moments of the legs, tripping, and so on. Takahata’s work is very different. The action is fluid, free, at times completely erratic, yet absolutely beautiful and novel all the time. It is a joy to see Kaguya run around the mansion, play in nature, and, of course, in the unforgettable final flying sequence.

That freedom of a line, freedom of movement, expressiveness of watercolors, and, most importantly, the coherence of all this together where characters and backgrounds form a complete whole, greatly affect the viewing experience. It is one of the reasons why Takahata left the original cel animaiton behind.

Takahata: “When you draw fast, there is passion. With a carefully finished drawing, that passion gets lots.I think that’s a shame… “Sketch-style” means that it is not a “finished” picture – it is just jotted down. It is like we catch the sense of this girl right now, jot it down, and there she is. Maybe with longer hair, but that’s what it is like. That kind of picture. But that style is important. Fast pencil, interrupted lines, and areas that paint does not reach. Incompleteness, not all done up nicely, but catching that moment.”

Realism

Takahata is very careful about depicting life in the most realistic manner possible. One of the animators lamented that he messed up the watermelon cutting scene in the Grave of the Fireflies and wanted to redeem himself this time.

One of the scenes involved cutting a melon. The team spent a lot of time to assess the speed of the blade, the resistance, etc. They even filmed the actual cutting of the melon to know exactly how it is happening.

You may ask, “Why such attention to details?” On one hand, it is to reflect the reality accurately. Although it is a tale, it is set in a particular historical and cultural context. Expressing this history accurately is honoring the traditional ways of doing things and demonstrating to the younger generations how tings used to be, perhaps, eliciting some appreciation for what was done and what they have now.

However, another aspect is even more important. It is a stark contrast between reality and fantasy. Takahata’s films have an especially big impact because they remain firmly grounded in reality, yet allow a spark of fantasy as well. When this spark happens, it turns into a flame because it is so different from what we’ve seen before, it is very surprising and actually appears more magical than another routine occurrence in a film full of such things. That is one of the reasons why the ending of Only Yesterday is so amazing, and why the flight sequence in Kaguya is so great!

Bamboo Cutter, a Misguided Parent

Seriously… How clueless can a parent get… He wished for happiness for his daughter, but brought her mostly misery by moving her away from her friends to the cage of the mansion in a capital. Yet a similar story is happening all the time even in our time. Parents pressure children in the careers that are perceived to guarantee offspring’s happiness or the ones parents wanted to pursue themselves, sometimes completely disregarding what a child wants. Here is an excellent TED talk on this topic.

On a related parenting note: Helping or Hovering? The Effects of Helicopter Parenting on College Students’ Well-Being (Schiffrin et al., 2013)

Beating Scene

I was somewhat shocked to see that she didn’t do anything to protect Sutemaru! She certainly could have done something! However, this scene is important because it further highlights her indecisiveness and lack or proactive actions.

Sutemaru

We do not know much about his character and the “joy of life” scene is absolutely wonderful, but… he has a wife and a kid, yet he changed his mind in a second! Yes, it works for the film and for the consequent scene, and may even fit the character, but a reply with some more dignity and honor would have been better. Would you leave your spouse and a child to run away with your childhood crush? This is a very irresponsible act! Nevertheless, it works well in the context of the story…

Ending Interpretation

Both Chii and Hisaishi ask Takahata directly about Kaguya and the main idea of the story to help them in the creative process. Here is what Takahata has to say.

“It is not a moon-being coming to the Earth, then going home. She is raised on the Earth, if I can put it that way. Even though she has all these possibilities, she does not realize them, and goes home, which in effect means she dies… Coming from the moon is birth and returning to it – death. She should be able to realize her hopes, but she can’t: she comes back, she dies. That’s what she regrets. She wanted to live. It is the same as dying without fully living.

“The intention is that the life on the Earth is good. The Earth is good, and she has come all the way here and then has to go back. It affirms the Earth, but kid of in a reverse way. She comes to the Earth, but she does not appreciate it, and she has to leave. She regrets that bitterly.”

Yet the actual depiction in the film is even more complex, even if Takahata didn’t intend it this way. We can take it even further and mix in some spirituality as well.

Let us take a look at her moment of death. Kaguya runs away and falls in the snow. It is an excellent scene. Sutemaru is Michiko (see the ending The Human Condition by Masaki Kobayashi, 1961).

Now you can assume that either of the two things happened:

1) She is about to die and the rest of the film depicts her final thoughts, her imagination while lying in the snow.
2) Celestial beings that appear to hover just above her transport her back in time and she wakes up in the mansion. However, note that she looks at the broken cup – it was not a dream, the running away actually did happen.

This decision to run away presents a pivotal point. She has a choice to remain in the cage or run away. She runs away, but finds only death. She says that she’s seen this before, she has seen this in her past life. Her “evolution” is not yet complete, that’s why the celestial beings “resurrect” her.

Now she has another choice. Should she run away again or remain in a cage. This time she decides to remain in a cage and be obedient, complacent with the current reality. When she realized the true nature of her condition, it is already too late…

Celestial Being: Come along, in the purity of the City of the Moon, leave behind this world’s sorrow and uncleanness.
Kaguya: It is not unclean! There is joy, there is grief… All who live here feel them in all their different shades! Birds, bugs, beasts, grass, trees, flowers and feelings!

The two main contrasts in the story:

Confinement of the Mansion vs Freedom of the Village
Life full of both suffering and joy vs Life of tranquility

Takahata’s perspective is that life full of both joy and suffering is better, life on the Earth is good, and we should embrace it, embrace every minute of it, every moment, which is also reflected in the ending song.

This is an extremely interesting point because it goes back to the contrast highlighted in Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha”. I highly encourage you to read it. One of the main points is the difference between organized religion, like Buddhism, and an individual path, living life to the fullest, truly understanding life in all its agony and ecstasy. There are several parallels between the story of Buddha and Kaguya, but it seems the stories really go into the opposite directions: the protagonists make different choices.

Now, you can also twist Takahata’s intention too and say that actually, it is a warning sign, as Chii pointed out, a warning or punishment to someone who is too attached to earthly desires, someone who is forever destined to run in a circle of samsara. Indeed, one of the versions of the original story of the tale is exactly that: she was sent to the Earth, where she would inevitably form material attachment, as a temporary punishment for some crime.

Since we are going deep into the spiritual and philosophical area, I’d like to end this article by inviting you to form your own opinion on the story and, more importantly, on some spiritual topics. What is self? Is there a re-incarnation? How one should live a good life? What is happiness?

Personally, I hold somewhat similar views as Takahata, Hesse, and Krishnamurti.

Further Exploration

Jiddu Krishnamurti. (Quotes, Books, Videos, Bio) Some people consider him a Maitreya. Listen to his talks and read his books – it just may change your worldview, especially if you are scientifically-minded. David Bohm, one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th century, was his student.

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. The more you know about Asian religions, the better you’ll be able to read between the lines. You’ll see elements of Jainism, Buddhisms, and Hinduism, among others. Compare and contrast the journey of the protagonist and Kaguya.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris, a neuroscientist.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

TED Talks on Happiness

The Human Condition (人間の條件 Ningen no jōken) is a Japanese epic film trilogy made between 1959 and 1961, directed by Masaki Kobayashi, based on the six-volume novel published from 1956 to 1958 by Junpei Gomikawa 五味川純平 (1916–1995). The trilogy follows the life of Kaji, a Japanese pacifist and socialist, as he tries to survive in the totalitarian and oppressive world of World War II-era Japan.

El laberinto del fauno

Oseam

Wabi-sabi (侘寂) represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”.

4 comments

  1. I’m not startled at all at how they perceived Kaguya as selfish granted their cultural values (in Japan the group consciousness hammers down individuality and filial piety is prioritized, especially back then). But at least she isn’t negatively portrayed as I see it. Her obedience up to a point is what lead her to an unfulfilling life on earth, which is the biggest message of the film: seize the day.

    I really loved the run away scene and the joy of life one, but visually and soundtrack-wise. I even cried, which isn’t often with ghibli films.

    I think her not interference with beating up her loved one was more a paralysis of how they met again and she still loved him.

    You aren’t the only one who thought as not polite/composed of Sutemaru that he wanted to netorare his spouse. The moment the ship sunk was so disappointing😦

    I absolutely adore the sketchy quality and empty spaces used in the art.

    All in all I enjoyed this very much. And thanks for the extra info you provided!


    • I am glad you enjoyed the film and agree with your comments!🙂

      Writing such detailed posts (and making a custom animation in this case) takes a lot of time, but it is worth it in the end. The last films by great directors especially deserve such attention. Also, by providing some extra details and resources, I hope that the readers will find something new and expand their worldview🙂


  2. When I first watched this movie, i was actually put off with the art since I tend to pay high attention to the illustrations but I stuck through and finished watching it! After a few days, this movie came out in theatre here in London and my mom was like ‘this story is so similar to a Chinese legend/myth’ lol the English dub was not bad BTW, except that I still didn’t like dub.


    • Glad you watched it in full!

      Yes, the story is very similar, but with a few twists.



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