‘Princess Kaguya’ is the ‘Game of Thrones’ of princess movies


The newest Studio Ghibli movie, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” is unlike any children’s film you’re likely to see this year — or ever. The fact that it has princess in the title, (and that it’s distributed by Disney), might suggest that it’s fun, escapist fare, but anyone familiar with the esteemed animation studio, and with the film’s director Isao Takahata, in particular, should know better. While it stays true to the overall structure of the folktale it’s based on, “Princess Kaguya” is unmistakably a deconstructionist project, similar to George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” books. (It’s much more than just that, as well, and I’ll get to later in the piece).

Both works stand in stark contrast to most contemporary fantasy, which takes the iconography of medieval times (princesses, knights, peasants), but divorces it from historical realities to create feel-good entertainment. While such works often nod to the problematic nature of the social structures of the times, (rigid gender and social roles, class division, etc.), the plucky characters of such films are usually able to successfully reject and change those systems without much consequence. In “Princess Kaguya,” like in “Game of Thrones” and in actual history, these systems are not so easily changed, and they cause great suffering to the people who live within them. For instance, “Princess Kaguya” depicts, in a surprisingly unflinching way, the way that those lower in the social hierarchy did not have control over their own bodies. This is a running theme, but I was particularly impressed with how the film turns the key plot twist of the original story into a wrenching allegory for how it feels for a woman to not be in control of her own body. (To get more specific would be a spoiler, but for those who have seen the film, I’m referring to the protagonist’s encounter with the emperor).

That “Princess Kaguya” is a children’s movie that thoughtfully explores such themes is reason enough for me to recommend it. But it’s so much more. It’s an exceptional film on many levels, from the gorgeous and subtle watercolor aesthetics (peppered with a few expressionist scenes) to its haunting soundtrack and excellent voice acting. Despite the heaviness of much of the subject matter, and the heavy-handedness with which it’s addressed, “Princess Kaguya” is often funny and wistful, depicting in vivid detail the joy and majesty, as well as the pain, of human existence.

Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine, and blogs about pop culture at
nichibei.org.

 

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