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Blu-ray Review: “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”

Blu-ray Review: "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya"

Will Sunday’s Best Animated
Feature Oscar be awarded to the magnum opus of a director considered to be one
of animation’s greatest? Or does it matter?

“Years from
now, who’ll know the difference?” says Linus to Charlie Brown in a Peanuts
strip. In the case of a transcendental, eternal animated feature such as
director Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess
Kaguya
, it will matter little to its devotees one hundred years hence.

Based on
Japan’s oldest folktale, “The Legend of the Bamboo Cutter”, Kaguya follows the Thumbelina-ish
appearance of a tiny girl in a bamboo shoot, who grows to adulthood at an
astonishing speed, gains princess status and contends with arranged marriage customs
and her true identity.

While Kaguya moves at a slower pace than most
animated features, after the first viewing, it was still surprising to learn
that this feature runs almost two and a half hours. That’s a long length for the
average animated feature, but Kaguya
is far from average in its presentation as well as in its making.

The just released Blu-ray/DVD combo package includes the original Japanese soundtrack with
subtitles, the English language version featuring Chloe Grace Moretz, Mary
Steenburgen and James Caan, trailers and press coverage of the film’s opening. The
third disc is an especially precious jewel on the Princess’ crown: a
feature-length documentary on its unusual history.

The
documentary is as much about the complexities of working with (and being)
Takahata as it is about the film. Eight years in the making (including a
postponed release date), it was director Takahata’s first feature in fourteen
years after My Neighbors, The Yamadas.
Though he ultimately called Kaguya his
“magnum opus”, he refused to direct it, despite producer Yoshiaki Nishimura’s attempts to persuade him—all day, every day,
for as many as twelve hours.

Here’s an exclusive clip from that bonus documentary:


His
condition for agreeing was that the film would be produced with the
illustrative approach of Yamadas even
further. Ghibli’s operation had already been thrown into utter chaos when Yamadas adopted a dramatically different
design and production style. For Kaguya,
the animation would be taken directly from Osamu Tanabe’s storyboards and
digitally placed over the background, without the use of cels.

Takahata,
director of the delightfully quirky Pom Poko
and the unforgettably gut-wrenching Grave
of the Fireflies
, often confounded his team with vague direction. Master
composer Joe Hisaishi comments that Takahata couldn’t explain what he wanted
until he heard it. In Takahata’s defense, he is a writer who neither draws nor
composes and perhaps leaves them to solve the puzzles. In the voice sessions, the
director seems more specific. When Takeo Chii’s line reads as the Bamboo Cutter
are not quite working, the atmosphere becomes tense but results in an outcome
that delights the director and gratifies the actor.

Despite
what was going on behind the scenes, The
Tale of the Princess Kaguya
is an exercise in gentleness of spirit,
affection and the joy of life. The lead character may be one of fantasy, but her
life takes her through very human adventures unbounded by time and culture.

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