I have been doing this for around three and a half years and some of you may have noticed that I have never discussed an anime film. It just seemed that plenty of others have spilled plenty of internet ink on anime that there was little point in me as a casual viewer dipping my toes in the subject. Oh, I have talked about movies that have animated sequences or movies that have a lot of obviously animated elements. I have event talked about one of the animated movies by the Train to Busan guy. But, finally, here is a genuine Studio Ghibli movie…and it is based on the same source material as the movie that I talked about three weeks ago.
Sanuki no Miyatsuko is a bamboo cutter. He chops down bamboo plants and creates all manner of things to sell.
One day, he sees a light shining from a bamboo stalk. He drops the bamboo that he was holding and goes to check it out. The glowing things looks like a tiny plant, but it suddenly starts growing at a rapid pace. And then it blooms to reveal a tiny girl inside.
Sanuki is astonished. He…asks the girl who she might be, but she just smiles at him and then goes to sleep. Sanuki reasons that Heaven must have sent her to him as a blessing, so he picks her up and takes her home.
Sanuki’s wife initially thinks that he has brought home a tiny doll. But upon noticing her moving Sanuki’s wife tries to take her from Sanuki, since she would be the one raising the child. Sanuki argues that she is already a beautiful princess. When Sanuki’s wife finally manages to take hold of the child, the child suddenly sheds her clothes and turns into a crying normal-sized baby. Sanuki’s wife has him get a cloth for the baby and calms her down. She says that this is a sign that the baby wants her to raise her, which conveniently tracks with her earlier statement.
As Sanuki’s wife walks outside with the now-sleeping baby, she explains to Sanuki that the baby’s former princess phase was a sign from heaven of what she will become, and so they must raise her properly. And just as they start discussing how she will be fed, Sanuki’s wife starts to lactate. And the baby starts to cry. So Sanuki’s wife starts to feed her. At one point, when the wind blows, the baby laughs…and Sanuki’s wife notes that she seems heavier…and then heavier still. Lots of milk during that one walk, huh. The baby even grows a bit when Sanuki is holding her.
One day, the baby starts to drag herself across the floor of the house. Then she starts to crawl. And then, after observing a couple of frogs, tries to hop after them. The frogs get away and the baby falls off the porch. Sanuki and his wife run after her, only to see her stand up and start walking. She walks over to her mother, showing her the frog that she had caught. Oops; the frog hops away and she starts crying.
A group of village boys have been observing the whole thing, noting that she was growing fast. One of them decides to give her the nickname Li’l Bamboo. They start yelling it out and Sanuki yells back that her name is Hime: Princess. They continue yelling Li’l Bamboo at her and she starts walking towards them, but she turns around when Sanuki starts yelling Hime at her.
It turns out that Sanuki and his wife take care of “Hime” somewhat equally, with Hime tagging along with her Sanuki as he cuts down bamboo shoots and helping to load some into the basket. Oh, and she can talk now.
One day, Hime hears the boys goofing around in the forest and ditches Sanuki to chase them. She comes across six young boars by a tree. She runs to them. While they are scared of her at first, Hime convinces them to come and play with her.
It is fun until the mother boar notices and runs at Hime. Fortunately, an older boy named Setumaru notices and rescues Hime just in time. As the mother boar runs off with her children, the boy scolds Hime for being so reckless. But his anger is replaced by shock as she grows in front of him. The regular group of boys arrive and tell Setumaru that she is a strange girl…and also note that she got bigger again, like a bamboo shoot. Hime repeats bamboo shoot, but understands it only in the context of dinner, which makes the boys laugh.
So, Setumaru and Hime, once again nicknamed Li’l Bamboo, follow the group of boys. Setumaru carries Hime on his shoulders as they all sing a song. Setumaru is actually surprised that Hime knows the song, as are the other boys. She gets off of Setumaru’s shoulders and walks past the other boys as they stop to stare at her in confusion. It seems that the version of the song that she is singing is a bit sadder than the one that the boys had been singing. When they ask her what is the matter, she says that she doesn’t know. So they all laugh. Setumaru picks her up again and they are off.
Meanwhile, Sanuki has been desperately searching the forest for Hime. But he stops when he comes across a glowing bamboo plant. He chops it down and gold spills out of from the inside.
I guess that things are settled, as Hime is back home…except when she goes off to play with the boys. Sanuki is unsure whether she should play with them so much, but his wife says that she is fine with them. Well, she is fine in the sense that she learns about village life from Setumaru and gets into some mischief with the others every now and then.
Sanuki finds a bunch of fancy clothes in another bamboo plant. He brings them home and tells his wife that this is a sign that Heaven wants them to give Hime a life that suits these clothes; the life of a noble princess. He says that he can use the gold that he found to have a mansion built in the capital. That would make her happy. His wife is not so certain. But Sanuki has made up his mind, and will visit the capital many times during the next few months with the gold to get things prepared.
Meanwhile, Hime continues to play with the village kids. One day, Setumaru cuts his arm while hinting a pheasant and Hime uses part of her headwrap as a bandage. Setumar notes that she grew again. Indeed, she is almost as tall as he is, even though he has been the tallest of the group. He says that she will probably keep growing and then go far away. Hime says that she will stay here forever.
Hime returns home to find her parents all packed up. Apparently, they had told her nothing about leaving, but she must go with them. Now. Not even saying goodbye to the kids whom she had promised to have dinner with. They walk to a horse-drawn covered carriage/cart and are gone.
Hime wakes up to see three servants and a handmaiden waiting for her. She follows one of the servants through a huge house until she sees a man and a woman in what looks to be some sort of mock throne room. They are all made-up and wearing fancy clothes. The man to give her a high class greeting, but he shouts it and stumbles over a couple of words. The woman stifles a laugh behind her fan. It is only then that Hime realizes that they are her parents.
Hime breaks down laughing, falling out of her robe. What is going on? Why are they dressed like that? Her mother admits that it is not exactly fitting for them, but her father hushes her and tells Hime to put on another robe from the closet of clothes that are all hers. Hime goes rummaging through the clothes, more to play around in them than to wear them, though. Her father tells her that this will be their new home. Having briefly forgotten her sadness over abandoning her friends, she goes running around the house, laughing and screaming.
Suddenly, Hime trips over a woman. Her father says that this is Lady Sagami from the palace, and that she has come to teach Hime the ways of a noble princess. Hime is confused, and Lady Sagami claims to have never met a girl so much in need of her training.
So Lady Sagami becomes Hime’s teacher…and Hime the troublemaker. Every time that Lady Sagami believes that Hime may be progressing, Hime misbehaves…except when her father comes to check on them. Then she is elegant and refined…while he still struggles to avoid tripping over himself. Privately, Lady Sagami says that Hime may be learning proper behavior but treats the whole thing like a game that she can win. Sanuki interprets this to mean that Hime truly is a princess from Heaven, and not that she is doing the bare minimum out of fear of disappointing him.
There is a part of the estate that houses a…house, that resembles their old house, the more modest looking wood and everything. Hime’s mother does chores there, even though the servants could easily do these things. Sanuki comes in and expresses disapproval the mother of a noble princess acting like this, but she says that it makes her feel at home.
Sanuki is about to complain some more when he notices Hime there as well. She is quiet and holding her head down. He wonders why and his wife whispers that Hime is going through her period. Sanuki says that this is a cause for celebration, and that they should hold a banquet to mark Hime’s coming of age. Hime lights up, and asks if she can invite her friends. Her mother thinks that that could be nice, but Sanuki gets upset. They live in a different world now and Hime is going to be a true princess. Hime darkens again. After Sanuki leaves, Hime goes in to the little garden, singing the song that she used to sing with her friends. She asks her mother whether she can plant things that she likes in the garden. Of course she can. Hime is somewhat happy again.
Lady Sagami wants to pluck Hime’s eyebrows and blacken her teeth to make her better look the part of a noble princess. Hime refuses on both counts. What if she has to laugh or sweat or cry? Lady Sagami says that a noble princess does none of those things, so Hime retorts that a noble princess isn’t human. She runs off, knocking over everything.
Sanuki brings over a Lord Akita, who has come to give Hime an appropriate princess name, as Princess Princess may sound weird. He comes over just as an un-made-up Hime is playing around with a cat, which greatly embarrasses Sanuki. Lord Akita laughs it off, claiming that observing her true self will allow him to give her an appropriate name.
When it is time to greet Lord Akita, though, Hime is all princessed up. Quiet, graceful, in a whole bunch of layers. Though her eyebrows remain unplucked and her teeth unblackened, she looks dignified. Lord Akita’s reaction to her beauty is…a little less dignified, but he recovers in time to give her the name Kaguya. Her parents are grateful.
The banquet is huge and…I have no idea how many noblemen are invited. This is supposed to be for the young woman now named Kaguya. But Kaguya, in her even fancier clothes and hairstyle, sits hidden away, with only her handmaiden to interact with her. Perhaps it is for the best, as the noblemen are getting super drunk and rowdy, not to mention harassing the servants.
After three days and nights of this, some of the noblemen grow even more restless. Rumors of Kaguya’s beauty have spread, but she remains hidden from sight. So, they start to express doubts to whether she is actually all that. They display little respect for, saying that all of this pageantry is meant for a princess, not a commoner like Kaguya. Sanuki insists that she is a princess, but they dismiss him, claiming that he just bought the title. Then they start laughing and suggesting that she is ugly, that this whole thing is a farce.
Kaguya has been overhearing all of this, getting more and more angry. She never wanted to go through this in the first place and here these jerks who don’t even know her are saying that it is all meaningless. That she is meaningless. So she runs off, through an empty part of the house, bursting through door after door until she is on the city street, shedding her layers of robes, scratching up the clothes that she is still wearing, and making her way back to the forest. To the place that was once her home.
Kaguya goes to her house to find that another family has moved in. She goes wandering through the forest to see a lot of it gone. And all of her friends are gone. She finds an old man and asks him what happened to the people who lived around here. He says that they left for ten years, hoping to return when the forest has revived.
So Kaguya walks and walks until she falls asleep in the snow. A bunch of tiny fairy-like beings fly around her and she wakes up back in her tiny quarters in the big house. So it was a dream? Maybe?
Kaguya lets Lady Sagami pluck her eyebrows. And then, with the help of her handmaiden, she blackens her teeth. She is a princess. And she will devote herself to the ways of princesses. Her father is overjoyed. Princess Kaguya is…it doesn’t matter.
As I mentioned last month, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter or The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a very old tale. It has also been adapted several times over. I also gather that this version was better received by the critics than 1987 movie Princess from the Moon from 1987 was, even though it was a financial failure.
While the 1987 has a bit of cold unreal quality to it, with stark colors everywhere. This one can get rather warmly abstract at times, with a lot of white space, gentle coloring, and blurred action. That is probably for the best given how much child-nudity there is towards the beginning. There are many other differences, but they do show how one can take the same story and tell it so differently. I will return to a couple of differences shortly.
I have seen claims that this is a feminist movie and…maybe…? Hime is certainly not an unquestioning pillar of ladylike virtue; far from it. She lashes out and rebels, asserting her individuality and striving for agency. But does she ever achieve that agency? Eh…there is one moment where she exerts a level of power over certain men, but…let’s just say that it is a tale as old as time power. Mostly, she acquiesces to men, be they her childhood friends or her father. When she rebels, she does so either by herself or in the presence of women. Lady Sagami gets the brunt of it, as she is the one tasked by Sanuki to impose the rules of ladies onto Hime. Hime obeys when her father is around, but when he is away? Forget it. Hime’s handmaiden seems to understand what is going on and tries to make things as comfortable for her mistress as possible, but that is kind of her job. Hime’s mother also knows what is going on and kind of acts as her gentle advocate to Sanuki, if only because Hime will not confide in him or confront him herself. So the movie sympathizes with Hime’s wish to be free, but does not really let her try to get free any more than society does.
I cannot say if this aspect of her personality was part of the original story, but it seems to fall a little uneasily into a long-standing tradition of Japanese storytelling: the nostalgia for an irretrievable youth. There are many Japanese movies…and shows, are about children being children. Sometimes they are ignorant of what will happen when they get older. Sometimes they see adulthood on the horizon. Becoming a cog in the machine, the putting aside of dreams, a stifling job, marriage, children, financial issues. There is nothing that they can do to stop it, but they can hold onto the memories of who they are now and what they are now. They grab onto something that they know is going to slip away soon, perhaps they do one more thing as a last hurrah before they enter a new age bracket. It is not so much coming of age as much as it is the time just before it. A going-away party or the banquet before the battle that they know will kill their youth. There is sadness that it is coming to an end but happiness to have been able to experience it. You watch, you laugh, you cry, you cry, you cry, you sigh, you smile, you move on. I have seen it be described as elegiac. And…um…since this movie involves people referred to as hillbillies…ahem…
Princess from the Moon rushes through Kaya’s baby years to her at about 5 years old. And then it suddenly skips over to Kaya at marriageable age. Being animated, this movie can be a little more subtle with when Hime ages. With the various montages, though, it can be a little more ambiguous in regards to the passage of time overall. So, instead of just skipping the aging process, it speeds it up, making it seem like Hime is made to grow up too fast. Additionally, while Kaya does not start to exhibit a noticeable personality beyond alienatingly stoic until about a third of the way through the 1987 movie, the Hime in this movie is lively and energetic from almost the beginning. So, she is more relatable as a character from the outset. The aging process does not bring out emotions from her, but attempts to suppress them.
I think that this movie has a point of view. A rather critical point of view in terms of society. Certainly, the class system is shown to be ridiculous. The rules are silly at best, destructive at worst, and can be bent at whim. Those at the top are hypocrites. Those below are considered disposable. And those who strive to rise above their station will never gain respect of those whom they hope to call their peers. Living to please others will not lead to happiness. Money cannot buy happiness. You cannot claim to know what is best for others if you don’t understand them.
But, so what?
Kaguya is shown to rebel against the constrictions that her father’s ambitions put her in. Yet, as it turns out, she can naturally conform to the rules when she chooses to do so. All she needs to do is tamp down her own desires. On the other hand, Sanuki’s attempts are as ineffective as they are desperate, making him come across as a buffoon. He turns out to be far from the only one who feels the need to lie about his true nature for the sake of getting what he can never truly have. While he may pin his hopes of social advancement upon Kaguya’s more effortless abilities, fate may push them towards diverging destinies that neither want.
There is a hint near the beginning of how the story will go. The village boys see a magic baby starting to walk and call her Li’l Bamboo, beckoning her to come to them. She starts to go, but her father calls her back, calling her Princess. Hime is not even a name, it is the destiny that she did not choose. She wants to go to those kids, but she ends up turning back to her father. Throughout her fast childhood, she will do this again and again, abandoning her friends and her home to please her father. Sanuki convinces himself that it is his duty to make her into the princess that she is destined to be, but he is completely oblivious to how miserable she has become. Yet, no matter how miserable she gets, she eventually relents. She hates her destiny. And her father is wrong to coerce her into it. But maybe he is right that it is her destiny.
Just as society is unfair, whatever force it is that makes Kaguya speed through her childhood is unfair to her. There seems to be things that specifically trigger her unnatural growth spurts, but I never quite grasped what it is, perhaps when her circumstances change. She can laugh it off as a baby, but it is less comforting as she gets older, as she realizes that this is abnormal. She is growing up too quickly. So she acts out. She rebels, both actively and in her dreams. She puts off as much as she can for as long as she can. Her mother understands and sympathizes, as does her handmaiden. But her father has deluded himself, certain that molding her into a princess (and reaping the benefits of that) is the task that Heaven has assigned to him. And we shall see how Heaven thanks him for his efforts.
Ultimately, whatever battle Kaguya wants to fight, she cannot win. Deep down, I think that she knows it. Unlike regular kids, she does not have the time to relish her childhood. She gets all of the wistful nostalgia with significantly fewer childhood memories to cherish. And the viewer witnesses that cycle of loss over and over at a rapid pace. Critics may have appreciated this, but it may have been a bit much for audiences hoping for a last hurrah that one can remember when one is older. I mean…there is one…of sorts, but…uh…there is a bit of a wrinkle.
This movie is…quite sad. But it seems to argue that sadness is a part of life, that one needs sadness to appreciate happiness. Which is totally the reason why I posted so many pictures of Hime/Kaguya/Li’l Bamboo smiling and not just sheer thoughtlessness brought about by a rush to get this done in time. There is a bit of commentary on the Buddhist idea of nothingness being a goal, freeing one from the suffering that is existence. The movie seems to agree that to live is to suffer, but it also that life is worth the suffering. There is a saying that some things cannot be helped. It is sad that they happen and perhaps things would be better if they did not happen, but there is nothing that anyone can do to stop them, at least not without messing everything up. This is how it is. So one endures them with as much dignity as is allowed, and setting aside thoughts over whether it should happen or not. Kaguya tries this. Sometimes she fails, but she ultimately understands that she has to accept her fate. It is sad, but that is how it is. It cannot be helped. This movie takes the elegy of youth genre and injects the easy tragic catharsis with some discomforting righteous rage. But it ends up where it ends up all the same. Whether you go quietly into the night or with an angry roar, you still go.
I feel like I may have gotten really wrapped up in this one aspect of the story and probably could have used an editor on…well, all of these, really, but I like this movie, and that is what I am trying to say.
WTF ASIA 187: Accident (Hong Kong: 2009, approx. 87 minutes)
WTF ASIA 188: Stand By Me (South Korea: 2018, approx. 91 minutes)