By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Frequently in “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” anime director Isao Takahata’s first film in 14 years, the edges of the frame seem unfinished, fading into white. This directs the viewer’s attention to the center of the frame, to whatever action, in whatever colors. Then gradually, the frame fills in at the edges. This happens several times over the film’s 137 minutes, but Takahata does it with such grace that it’s hard to catch. The director marks time this way, and measures the length of time to another dramatic climax.
The film’s story derives from the Japanese folktale usually referred to in English as “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” If you are not familiar with the story, this review will contain spoilers for the film. A cutter in a bamboo forest, Okina (voiced in English by James Caan and in Japanese by Takedo Chii) finds a tiny little girl inside a bamboo shoot. She appears on camera small enough to fit in Okina’s two hands, and radiating white light from her perch like the Buddha inside a lotus. She cannot speak, although the white light gives an important, if subtle, clue to her true origins.
Okina takes the tiny child home and cares for her with his wife, Ona (voiced by Mary Steenburgen and Noboku Miyamoto). The little girl transmogrifies swiftly into something resembling a normal baby girl, but she remains an odd duck, with odd growth spurts quite unlike normal children. She begins to speak (voiced by Chloe Grace Mortez and Aki Asakura) and takes as much, if not more, pleasure from games and songs with other children. The children call her “Little Bamboo,” but Okina insists that she be called “Princess.” Okina dreams for his stepdaughter to clash with the course of the outside world.
Takahata, oddly enough for an anime director, does not draw, so he’s dependent on those around him to furnish the drawings and provide the overall look of a film, from his instructions. This time around his crew includes animator Shogo Furuya and art director Kazuo Oga, and they provide a wide range of looks. Some of the characters, especially the young children, have very broad and loosely drawn features, resembling folks from the director’s earlier film “My Neighbors The Yamadas.” Princess herself takes on a wide variety of appearances from her odd introduction onscreen, to that of a fairly normal young girl at play, to the rarified look (plucked eyebrows, blackened teeth) she acquires under the tutelage of Lady Sagami (Lucy Liu and Atsuko Takahata). Lady Sagami has been hired by Okina to teach his Princess how to become a proper lady—and Princess/Little Bamboo can’t stand the lessons, because they run counter to everything she knows and loves.
And there comes a moment where the heroine can no longer stand what’s being done to her. She takes off running—out of the city, out of the palace Okina, built for his Princess, with skeptical Ona looking on—and with phenomenal velocity, she streaks towards her old home, towards what she thinks will offer safety, comfort, stability, and freedom. As she rushes, she blurs, and smudges around the edges, gritting the teeth that she’s wiped clean to shine white again. This is only one of the more profound visual transformations in the protean tour-de-force. (end)
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” plays at the Harvard Exit Theatre, located at 807 East Roy Street on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. The first showing of each day is dubbed into English, with subsequent showings in Japanese, subtitled in English.
For prices and showtimes, consult local listings or call 206-323-0587.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.