The first Japanese Film Festival ini Jakarta that was held in November 2015 also presented a number of Japanese animated feature films. One of them was Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Kaguya Hime no Monogatari). Directed by Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko), the story is based on the Japanese folk tale “Taketori Monogatari” or “The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter.”
As told in the film, an old bamboo-cutter discovered a little girl in a shining bamboo shoot. He then decided to raise the girl together with his wife, naming her Kaguya. After obtaining gold and beautiful clothes from other bamboo shoots, the old man took his family to the capital in order to raise the girl as a noblewoman. News about the beauty of the girl then spread, and she became coveted by several princes and court officials.
One point of interest from this film is the portrayal of Kaguya that feels more “humane” rather than divine or otherworldly. Take for example, the moment when Kaguya came up with plot to subtly refuse the proposals from the princes and the court officials. While she had to maintain her composure while addressing her suitors, the viewers are privy to the truth behind the curtain that she’s holding back her nervousness. And again, when she needed to challenge the suitors to prove the authenticity of the impossible treasures that they brought at her request, she was shown to hide her worry that she might not be able to disprove them. She also felt guilt when one of the suitors suffered an accident while searching for the treasure. Here, Kaguya isn’t depictes as a being whose existence surpass mankind, but more as someone who yearns to experience a normal life like most humans do.
Kaguya’s humane portrayal in this film is also ascribed on her character design. While the overall visual of this film is made to resemble Japanese medieval picture scrolls, Kaguya’s face still bear resemblance to the look of typical Ghibli heroine rather than conforming to the kind of beauty idealised at the Imperial court of medieval Japan. Instead of a sheltered, high-class beauty, Kaguya appears more as a young girl whose beauty lies in her lively nimbleness that makes her feel more down-to-earth.
Kaguya also treasured her ephemeral life on Earth so much, even though she saw and experienced many suffering and sadness. But it is in the turning between happiness and sorrow within the fleeting circle of life, with all its flaws, that she could discover what makes life meaningful. It was something that she couldn’t find in her life on the moon, which is free from every “impurity” (kegare) unlike on Earth; a life that does not experience any flaws or changes.
Such theme brought me to recall the manga Touhou Bougetsushou: Silent Sinner in Blue (published in Indonesia by Elex Media Komputindo), which also brought up the contrast between the lives of the denizens of the moon and Earth. The Lunarians in Touhou Bougetsushou are proud of their impurity-free life on the moon, thinking that Earthlings live pitiful life in a world full of impurities. However, the youkai of Earth do not consider life on Earth to be pitiful, for even in that flawed and fleeting world they still can celebrate festivities and share some joys together.
As mentioned before, one of the most notable aspect of this film is the use of drawing style that resembles emaki (narrative picture scroll) illustrations. There is even a scene where Kaguya’s tutor demonstrated the way to view emaki, unfolding and refolding the scrolls at different sides so that the image gradually comes in and out of view, making it resembles some kind of animation projection.
This aspect is interesting to note because director Takahata actually believes that emaki is a predecessor of Japanese animation (see chapter 2 of Thomas Lamarre’s The Anime Machine). In his book Juuni Seki no Animation (12th Century Animation), Takahata builds a narrative which posits that Japanese animation is a successor of a form of art that existed in the 12th century. Through the Kaguya film, it appears that Takahata wishes to re-iterate and demonstrate the connection between Japanese animation and emaki that he believes in.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is an interesting work. With a new interpretation of Kaguya’s character that feels modern but also draws from traditional spirituality; combined with Takahata’s effort to place this work in the lineage of Japanese art history that goes back centuries; the film is presented to establish a continuity of Japanese art from ancient times into modern era. This is a positioning that deserves further examination and analysis.
The Indonesian Anime Times | By Halimun Muhammad | Translation by M Razif Dwi Kurniawan