The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA (KAGUYA-HIME NO MONOGATARI, かぐや姫の物語) is based on the oldest Japanese fiction called ‘Taketori Monogatari (Spoilers)‘ written in late 9th century. The author is unknown and the original text didn’t survive. Set in the peaceful era of the Fujiwara regency, the story revolves around a ‘princess’, who was found inside a bamboo tree, when she was a baby. Raised by the old childless couple, she grew up to be the most beautiful lady on earth. So begins the story. Almost all Japanese know the story by heart, at least the beginning and the ending. But I wouldn’t go further, for I presume many of my readers are not familiar with this old Japanese tale of wonder, and I don’t want to spoil your excitement when you see it.

Isao Takahata has been a poison in the Ghibli Studio. He had been a ‘right-hand man’ to Hayao Miyazaki for a long time, but his last directorial work, MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMADAS (1999), was a classic case of a big-budget-production-dead-on-arrival. Ballooning budget, lavish experimental animation techniques, coupled with unfortunate distribution issues, resulted in one of the most extravagant flops in Japanese animation history. He was literally washed up. He was out of business for many years, until one of his admirers, Seiichiro Ujiie, CEO of Nihon TV, threw his big fat wallet on the table and said, ‘I want to see his new film!’. Then, Takahata has done it again. KAGUYAHIME’s budget reached 50 million dollars (THE YAMADAS’ cost was less than half of that), and many people seem to believe that it won’t pay the bill. It won’t be a problem, though. That big fat wallet is still on the table, and its owner has been dead for two years.
I saw many comments making fun of the film being another mega-ton dud, but I think they are missing the point. The film is about making a masterpiece of the century. A powerful, rich patron ordered his own Michelangelo to paint his own Sistine Chapel. I thought this practice died many centuries ago, and am glad to see it didn’t.
So, is this new Takahata’s film a masterpiece? I don’t know. Only the time will tell. Because it has to stand the test of time to prove itself. But I am quite sure KAGUYAHIME NO MONOGATARI is a good contender.
Its unique art, reinvented from various old Japanese painting styles, will grab your imagination and never let it go. Brush strokes, warm colors, delicate movements and empty spaces, – especially empty spaces -, will flow into your unconsciousness unceasingly. The screen is filled with wonders of Being, miraculously drawn by a masterful artist, as if he leisurely stroked his chalks. As Takahata himself says in the promotional website, he wanted to move pictures as a whole. Most animation (and most movies for that matter) places characters against background, and move the characters around. In this new film, you actually see pictures move. That’s a whole new experience. Ghibli had to build a new studio for this work. I’m glad they did.
The original text of Taketori Monogatari is minimal in its style, with almost no ornamental subplots or anecdotes. That’s why many modern readers like to ‘interpret’ the story in more accessible context. For example, many claims this story is probably the oldest science fiction in the history of literature (except a few in found in ancient Greece). Kon Ichikawa took this path when he made his version of Taketori Monogatari back in 1987. In the last sequence, the flying saucer a la CLOSE ENCOUNTER (1977) visits 9th century Kyoto. Well, it was okay back in the time of acid-wash denims, but looking at it today, the production (especially the music by Peter Cetera!) is dated. That’s the problem with making a film with too many marketing people in shiny Giorgio Armani suits. Takahata’s new animation seeks its theme in one of the most popular literary narrative of modern world, – civilization vs. nature. Plus feminism, animism, nature-worship … many of them familiar to those who have seen Ghibli’s animations. I think this interpretation perfectly flows with the style and atmosphere of this film, – up to two-thirds into the film. The climax, -from ‘flying sequence’ and on, if I would be specific without revealing too much – seems somewhat too corny. I think this film works so well because it leaves so many spaces blank, – we fill them with our own imagination -, but the last minutes are dangerously close to making “statements”. Fortunately, it stopped short of becoming a vulgar ‘I-wanted-to-tell-you-this” kind of disaster, and evidently they did it on purpose. But I have to tell you, when I saw the ‘flying sequence’, I kind of smelled cheap cologne emanating from shiny Armani suits.
I confess I love this film for personal reasons. I felt somewhat uneasy, – depressed even – after seeing this film. I couldn’t nail it, but it plucked the string so deeply merged in my fading memories. A few days later, I found out why. Takahata spent his childhood in the rural city of Okayama, where I myself spent my own childhood. The landscape in the film is not just familiar, it is my childhood. (Takahata himself said in the interview that he drew inspirations from Okayama’s landscape.) And as if the story of Kaguyahime were to overlap my own sense of loss, these landscape no longer exists. They are only fading in my memories. The blooming cherry tree in the film is so reminiscent of the cherry trees in the hills near my old house. The place is now developed with contemporary style architectures, pavements and structures, for convenient ‘flower appreciation’. You sit on a bench, instead of crouching on the ground. You no longer have to worry about bugs crawling up your feet anymore. The bamboo forest, the winding paths through tress, the variety of wild vegetation, I used to know all of them. My childhood buddies and I used to play around in that landscape. But, as we all know, they would go. We humans have to destroy it. There used to be so many ’empty spaces’ around us, – vacant spaces left as they are, trees grows wildly, so many bugs and annoying plants build their kingdom. But we are compelled to fill them with something. We have to fill them with parking lots, vending machines, apartment houses, tennis courts or whatever. As if we want our background, so we could move around in front of it.
Oh, by the way, if you are the kind of person easily moved to tears, don’t forget to bring a handkerchief. This film will hit you right in the lachrymal glands. 

Studio Ghibli

Directed by Isao Takahata 
Written by Isao Takahata, Riko Sakaguchi
Produced by Yoshiaki Nishimura, Toshio Suzuki, Seiichiro Ujiie
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Why I Hate 110th Anniversary of Yasujiro Ozu

This is 110th anniversary of Yasujiro Ozu. Not so many artists receive recognition at the centenary of their birth, even less do at the 110th. But it is good to know that there will be a new generation of audience who will discover his works for the first time in this occasion. During the past months, I saw many books published, magazines running special issues, his prints newly restored, theaters holding Ozu festivals, and Blurays released. But somehow, my interests have faded away. Maybe it is a temporary thing, but I am fed up with this hype. Then I started to hate this anniversary thing after reading some pathetic articles. Sort of.
One high-blow art/literature magazine published a special issue on Ozu’s life and works. In one of these articles, a prominent Japanese film critic – the Ozu specialist, they say – declared BFI’s top 100 movies (TOKYO STORY was selected as No.1) atrocious. He seems to think all foreigners (and some Japanese) are riding along with Ozu fad. Half of those who voted for TOKYO STORY haven’t seen all of Ozu’s works, he triumphantly declared. I thought it hilariously stupid. In the middle of a sleazy marketing carnival, there is a sleaze criticizing other guys being sleazy. He called David Bordwell’s work ‘a thick book of little substance’, or words to that effect. He went on cursing everything related to recent Ozu appreciation (probably by those who didn’t ask for this guy’s permission). Among these vomit printed on tragically high-quality paper, I sensed timidness, cowardice, child-like withdrawal from the world outside.
Other articles by ‘lesser’ critics, – most of them are this guy’s followers – are not as scatological, but boring to death. I read these boring babbling somewhere else long time ago.
Part of the problem comes from what they used to call ‘Japanese-ness’ of Ozu. Many Japanese hesitated to recommend his works to overseas for a long time, because they were considered ‘too Japanese’ to be appreciated by non-Japanese. Somehow, they regarded SEVEN SAMURAI or GATE OF HELL were more accessible to non-Japanese, – mainly Europeans and Americans – back in ’50s and well into ’70s. To some extent, I believe that might have been true. Since ’70s, however, many world-wide audiences discovered Ozu’s films, thanks to Donald Richie, Paul Schrader, and many other critics. Their introduction did bring Ozu’s works to the arena of World Cinema. It didn’t take long for TOKYO STORY to become a staple of ‘All-time Best’ polls and ‘Movie List’. Now, Japanese critics, – and sadly many of them, – are at loss about this phenomena. Reading their writings, though it isn’t expressed explicitly, I sense this sentiment of too-Japanese-to-be-appreciated hidden underneath. It’s not about Japanese anymore. Maybe I should say this straight: they don’t like someone else discovering their treasures. For those who want to create an exclusive circle of themselves, non-Japanese audiences are easy target.
I don’t think Ozu’s works are particularly too ‘Japanese’. Furthermore, this may offend some die-hard Ozu fans, but I should say his techniques are not particularly unique, either. What distinguishes his works from other contemporary Shochiku filmmakers is consistency. His works are consistent in fluidity, in technique, in their approaches, in their characterization and in their stories. They are consistent within themselves and among themselves. That’s why they can be analyzed and re-analyzed over and over.
Another part of problem stems from the fact that these critics didn’t grow up. They are munching the same kind of analysis for more than three decades, using a similar set of language, methods and marketing tools. Their writings usually contain a strange set of words – mainly ‘invented’ by the group of Japanese critics back in ’80s -, like ‘gaze’, ‘anti’ or ‘toward’, which sounded fashionable during the time of “Beverly Hills Cop”. Not anymore. But these critics are still using them, and the most tragic thing is, they don’t realize they are out of fashion. That’s all right, that’s their problem, but this prompted me to think it over. In the time of DCP, 3D, YouTube and more new technologies to come, what the hell I should see in these old films? That’s one thing I should think over.
In any case, what I am trying to do here in this blog, then? I want to provide more background of each Japanese film to non-Japanese audience. I am trying to explore what was expressed in what context. Of course I know I am not as qualified as I want to be on the subjects. I am not as informed on the subject as any of you are. Many of these films were made a long time ago. Many of the things photographed in those films have been forgotten, decayed and lost. I am not a professional historian or a curator or a critic. What I can do is to dig up Japanese source materials and historical references relating to a particular film and introduce them in English. Personally, I learn a lot in this process myself.
By the way, I learned a lot from David Bordwell’s ‘Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema’. I learned a lot.