'Princess Kaguya,' a fairy tale that becomes much more

Tom Long
The Detroit News

'The Tale of The Princess Kaguya' starts out as a fairy tale, evolves into a cautionary lesson, and then becomes an emotional metaphor of life itself.

Using animation that seems part sketch and part watercolor, director and co-writer Isao Takahata takes a traditional Japanese fantasy through turns that are gleeful, tragic, ecstatic and transcendent. He begins and ends with a sense of wonder that contrasts with the very human failings that make up the bulk of the story.

It starts with a bamboo cutter, at work in his remote country grove when a bamboo shoot suddenly sprouts out of the ground, holding a tiny, perfectly formed princess. The cutter picks the princess up, holding her delicately in his hand, and runs home to show her to his wife.

When his wife goes to hold the princess, the doll-like creature transforms into a baby — a baby who starts growing almost immediately. Soon she's a small child, playing with other local children, most notably an older boy named Sutemaru who protects and guides her.

Meanwhile the bamboo cutter is discovering miraculous things in his grove. He cuts open one bamboo stalk and discovers a huge amount of gold. Out of another come beautiful gowns. He takes this to mean that his adopted daughter is indeed intended to be a princess.

So he journeys to the capitol and pays to have a mansion built for his daughter, who, to this point, is only known as Princess or Little Bamboo. When it is finished, he informs the girl, now mostly grown, that she must leave her friends and beloved woods setting behind and move to the city to learn how to be a proper princess.

The princess is heartbroken but obeys her well-intentioned father — to an extent. A natural rebellious streak surfaces as she is taught proper etiquette, groomed, and eventually guided toward marriage. A wise man dubs her Princess Kaguya and spreads word of her beauty. Soon the princess has suitors aplenty, but all she really wants is to be back in the woods with Sutemaru.

Obviously there are morals built into much of this, about trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, about parents desperate to elevate themselves by elevating their children, about the simple joys of nature and spare living versus the complications of civilization.

But as "The Tale of The Princess Kaguya" draws to a colorful, imaginative end, it takes a more spiritual and wholly unexpected turn. There's magic in this story, and magic in the way it's been brought to the screen.



'The Tale of The Princess Kaguya'


Rated PG for thematic elements, some violent action and partial nudity

Running time: 137 minutes

At the Detroit Film Theatre

"The Tale of The Princess Kaguya" (PG) A bamboo cutter finds a tiny princess in the woods and takes her to the city to raise her as a real princess in this magical work of Japanese animation. (137 minutes) GRADE B+