Review with SPOILERS
Beautiful animation with soft pastel colours so reminiscent of traditional paintings of the Heian period is the highlight of this adaptation of a traditional Japanese tale. The amazing nature settings echo the aesthetic sense of that period, the colours and brushstrokes are delicate, like flower petals. I was immediately in love. 😀 It is not surprising it was nominated for an Oscar, and it is a damn shame it did not get it. This is animation at its most superb!
The traditional tale of a Bamboo cutter or Princess Kaguya is well-known, something like western Cinderella or Sleeping beauty. That alone makes it a worthwhile watch, but the amazing animation, music and atmosphere make it an art experience you won’t forget. I could just frame some of the stills and look at them all day.
The tale starts off with the bamboo cutter Sanuki no Miyatsuko finding a glowing bamboo stalk with a tiny princess inside. He takes her home to his wife where the tiny princess transforms into a baby. They decide to keep and raise her, the bamboo cutter always looking for a way to give her back her princess status. The couple loves her like they would their own flesh and blood. These scenes of a happy family are some of the most heart-warming. Kaguya has an amazing childhood in the mountains, even more when she befriends local children. They give her a nickname Little bamboo (Takenoko) for her ability to grow so fast. No one is afraid of it though, they just accept her as she is, her odd abilities aside. She forms an especially close bond with the oldest boy Sutemaru. Children sing a song that repeats several times throughout the movie. Kaguya knows another verse to the song no one has heard before and it is a melancholy one. She doesn’t know why she remembers it or why it makes her sad, but being a child, she moves on and forgets about it.
Sanuki soon finds a bamboo with gold and another one with silk kimono which is all he needs to move forward with his plan to turn the girl into a princess. Kaguya has no idea of his plans until he comes for her one day and moves her to the capital. There he had built a great mansion and bought himself a noble title. The girl is dismayed to be taken away from the mountain and her friends but soon finds other things to take delight in at the opulent home. She’s less enthusiastic about the teachings of a noble lady Sagami, who tries to instil in her the manners of a princess. The beauty aesthetics of the time – plucked eyebrows, blackened teeth, white face – also cause her problems. She fears to be lost behind the mask, stifled in the propriety of the noble position. Somehow she finds a way to be herself and yet observe some of the proprieties. She loves music and she astounds all around her with her talent.
It is her mother who understands her and offers her support, herself feeling a bit lost with the high status too. Together they cook in a small house on the premises, build a garden, do the usual chores they did in their home in the mountains. It is there that Kaguya thrives and is happy. The visits to the countryside make her reminisce about the happy past of a simpler life. They bring her joy in the ever-changing seasons, and an opportunity to be herself again. The beautiful scenes of nature here capture the seasons and remind us of traditional paintings. The atmosphere they create is enhanced by Kaguya or other lonely figures in the landscape. The isolation, loss of friends who have moved away in the pursuit of new lacquer trees, is now made visible. The passing time brings its own tribulations, a certain melancholy.
Then Kaguya comes of age and a grand feast is prepared. A noble lord comes to give her an official name and he is struck with her beauty and radiant aura. Word spreads in the capital and many flock to the mansion to get a glimpse of her. This causes her to be locked in her rooms, further making her feel like a bird in a golden cage. When the lord who saw her spreads tales of her beauty at court, five men race to the mansion to ask for her hand in marriage. Kaguya is dismayed. When they heap praise upon her and compare her to wondrous fairytale treasures, she snaps. They had not seen her face she reminds them, how could their words be true? If they are serious about marrying her, they must bring her the treasure they compared her to.
Her father and lady Sagami are horrified – she has destroyed any chance of marriage with this outrageous proposal, but Kaguya is happy to be free of the men. She can visit the countryside again. Years pass then the first of her suitors returns, claiming to have travelled to a mystical mountain where he found the tree made of silver and gold and jewels. He brought her a branch, as she had demanded. Kaguya can’t believe her yes, then the artisans who have made the branch break into the mansion, demanding payment from the prince. The trick is revealed and the prince flees in shame.
Soon enough, another suitor comes, claiming to have found a robe made from the skin of a fire rat. Kaguya demands he prove it by putting it into fire – if it is truly made of the skin of a fire rat, it will not burn but remain whole. The courtier does so with some trepidation but when he thinks himself safe, the robe bursts into flame. Amidst cries of losing a fortune, he departs the mansion.
The third suitor has gone to the sea, searching for a dragon to slay and win its jewel. A terrible storms flings the ship on high waves, amidst the lightning he sees a giant dragon made of clouds descent and is struck with terror. A competent sailor saves his life, telling him t he storm will blow itself out, but the nobleman has had enough and will not pursue her hand in marriage.
The next suitor to come to the mansion has promised to bring her the stone bowl of Buddha. He says he went to all the monasteries in the country, searching in vain for the bowl, when he was struck by a thought. Resting at the road, he saw a flower and realised she does not want a cold bowl, but flowers. She desires freedom and a man who will love her, set her free, live a simple life with her in the country. Kaguya is overjoyed that he understands her so well, that he will bring her back to the mountain she longs for when a woman enters her room and bids her to move away. The suitor speaks ardently of his love for her behind the screen then bursts into the room, expecting to see Kaguya. What he gets is the mother of one of his wives. She tells how he has promised the same to numerous women only to throw them away, making them enter into a monastery, and moving to another girl. Frightened of the intimidating woman, the man flees.
Kaguya longs for the mountain more than ever as rumours about the fate of her suitors spreads in the city. The last of them has died while searching for the treasure he had promised her. Kaguya is heartbroken that she is the cause of so much misery. The emperor hears the tale and decides to have a look at the lady whose beauty ruined five men. He goes to the mansion and gets permission from Kaguya’s father to have a look at her face. Overcome with desire, he rushes into the room to embrace the unsuspecting girl. Kaguya disappears into thin air to escape his clutches, revealing her powers and otherworldly character. This only flames the desire of the emperor. He vows not to harm her if she appears again, so she does. He asks for her hand in marriage but she rebuffs the proposal firmly. He is amused since no woman can deny him, but decides to wait before forcing her to marry and move to the palace. It seems there is no way out.
Kaguya bursts into tears when she’s in private again, finally remembering her past. She reveals to her concerned mother she comes from the Moon Palace – a traditional location of heavenly planes in Japanese folktales, heavily influenced by Buddhism. It was there that she had heard the second verse of the song sung by a woman who had gone to Earth before. Overcome with curiosity about life and the lingering sorrow of the woman she committed a sin and was banished. It is speculated that the sin is her desire to enter the flawed earthly existence and not cherishing the blessings of the heavenly realm where there is no sorrow, no pain, and no memories of life. This is the ultimate reward in afterlife, the state of nirvana all beings strive for. By desiring other things, she rejected that state and was thus banished to a place where pain and sorrow abound.
Kaguya reveals that by desiring to be somewhere else, by crying out for a rescue when the Emperor surprised her, she has forfeited life on Earth. She must return back to the Moon Palace at the next full moon. There is no place she can hide from them, no way she can take back her desire for safety and prolong her time on Earth. The parents are heartbroken. He father builds tall walls and hires an army to fight the heavenly beings who would take her, but the mother understands there is little to be done and strives to fulfil Kaguya’s wishes as best she can. So they escape the mansion and go on a long trip to the mountain again.
There Kaguya meets her old friend, Sutemaru. He has married and has a child but he is glad to meet her. They talk, reminiscing about their life as children. Kaguya says she would have been happy living with him but he doesn’t believe her – isn’t life as a princess better? Who would want to wander around, going hungry or stealing food? Kaguya asks him to run away, to be free and together. In a wonderful sequence, the two flow over the land, relishing their freedom. Then the moon appears and Kaguya cries for Sutemaru to hold her close, to not let go. Despite his struggle, Kaguya is pulled free and plummets to the sea. Her last cry is for him to remember her. Sutemaru abruptly wakes up. He’s in the meadow but there’s no Kaguya, nor does it appear she ever was there. His family comes and he forgets about the dream and the girl. In another scene, the carriage is returning to the mansion.
Now the night of the full moon has come and everyone is at high alert. The moon is large and forbidding in the sky and it appears to grow brighter. Then the sound of heavenly music is heard and a large cloud with heavenly courtiers arrives. No weapon can touch them but people who hear the music fall asleep. The music penetrates the walls of the mansion, entering the room where Kaguya clings to her mother. Despite her plea, the magic takes hold of her and brings her to the cloud. Her mother cries after her, singing the song and breaking the spell. Kaguya pleads to Buddha to not take her memories, to not take her away, but the law is clear – everyone who enters the heavenly realm must forget their past. In this way it is clear Kaguya is entering death. There is nothing to do and the host slowly returns to the moon while Kaguya looks back with tears in her eyes. She is now the same as the woman who sparked her interest.
The ending guts you, it truly does. I’m fascinated with Asian folk tales – they don’t end happily often and there’s usually a tinge of melancholy, of sadness, even tragedy about them. This tale is no exception and the difference in tone of the beginning and ending are reminiscent of human life in general. We all start as innocent children, filled with hopes, dreams, desires, and happiness. We love simple things and are content with the love we receive from our parents and friends. Then comes the time when we grow up and start noticing the way of the world. We have desires that are different from the usual order of things; we are continuously constrained by rules, expectations, and other people. Our happiness is a fleeting thing, often fragile. Our actions impact other people – we are capable of both good and evil. We regret, mourn, fight, bow to, or flee from things. Our minds and memories are our refuge and a place where we hide. The world moves on and we are caught in its grip, the cruel existence and inexorable passage of time, swept away with the tide, until we are ripped from this existence. Our life, our sorrows but also our happiness, finally disappears. Kaguya is like any other human being and we are like her – filled with an inner light.