Release Date(s)2013 (February 17, 2015)
Studio(s)Studio Ghibli/Nippon Television/Toho (GKids/Universal)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B+
Directed by Isao Takahata (whose previous films for Studio Ghibli include such diverse gems as Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko, Only Yesterday, and My Neighbors the Yamadas), The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is adapted from a 10th Century Japanese folktale called “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” which is also considered the oldest known piece of Japanese narrative prose.
While harvesting bamboo in the forest one day, a good-hearted man is surprised to discover a tiny, doll-like girl sleeping in a glowing bamboo shoot. He takes her home to his wife, who is delighted, considering the child a gift from the heavens. The couple decides to raise the infant as their own, and watch in amazement as she begins growing at an extraordinary rate, becoming first a sweet little girl and then a young woman of great innocence and beauty. For a time, this new family enjoys a simple but happy existence. Then the man makes another surprise discovery in bamboo… a rich pile of gold. So when his daughter comes of age, he decides that she must live as a true princess in a proper mansion. He uses the gold to move his family to the capitol, build a lavish estate, and create a dowry worthy of her marriage to any of the greatest lords in the land. But for everything one gains in life, there is also something lost. As time marches on, the young princess begins to discover her true nature… and everyone must live with the consequences of the choices they’ve made.
It’s often noted that Isao Takahata has a well-earned reputation for taking a long time to complete his films, and this one was no exception. Production on Kaguya began in 2008 but the film wasn’t released theatrically in Japan until November of 2013. Still, Kaguya is as clear an example as one could imagine of the notion that good things come to those who wait. The film is deceptively simple, but exhibits an extraordinary depth of wisdom about human nature, emotion, and motivation. Its visual artistry is in a class all its own. Most importantly, though, Kaguya is the rare animated film that treats its audience with the utmost respect, delighting the eye, heart, and mind in equal measure. The film rewards patience and trusts that both child and adult viewers alike can handle its treatment of life’s grand themes.
Universal’s Blu-ray presents the film in exquisite 1080p HD video quality, at the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The image is crisp and yet completely natural looking, featuring nuanced and glowing contrasts, colors that are both delicate and subtle, and magnificent texturing. The sense of line and movement here is brisk, effortless, and never overdrawn. Watching this imagery unfold is like seeing an artist’s sketchbook drawings or watercolor paintings come to life. I simply can’t imagine the film looking better than it does here. This is a marvelous HD presentation.
The audio is available in English and Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD MA, as well as French 5.1 DTS. Like the visuals, the sound field is completely natural and engrossing. It delights with smooth and precise staging, excellent clarity, and lovely atmospherics. The score is provided by Joe Hisaishi and it ranks among his best work. The English dubbed audio features the voice talents of Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Lucy Liu, Beau Bridges, James Marsden, Oliver Platt, George Segal, and many others. It’s quite good actually, but I would never choose to view a film like this in anything other than its native language. On that front, hats off to Universal for including English SDH captions for the English dubbed audio as well as a proper English subtitle translation for the original Japanese language audio. (French subtitles are available too.) See Disney? That’s how you do Japanese animation right on Blu-ray.
Extras on the Blu-ray include video of the press conference announcing the film’s completion (40:09), Japanese trailers and TV spots (13:33), and a pair of U.S. trailers (3:05), all in full HD. In a grand touch, Universal has also included a separate DVD that offers a feature length documentary on the film’s production called Isao Takahata and his Tale of the Princess Kaguya (85:29 – presented in anamorphic widescreen video with Japanese 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo audio and burned-in English subtitles). I must confess, I haven’t yet had the chance to view the full documentary, but if it’s anywhere near as good as Ghibli’s recent The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (reviewed here on DVD), this should prove to be a terrific bonus. Right off the bat, it’s interesting to see that, while Hayao Miyazaki rough-animates his films first and records dialogue to fit the artwork, Takahata actually records his actors first and then lets the animation be inspired by their voices. The Blu-ray package also includes a separate DVD version of the film. Note that Ghibli’s Japanese BD release of this film also included the original storyboards and screenplay, both in Japanese only, so it’s understandable that they’re not available here.
At 79 years of age, all indications are that this will be Isao Takahata’s final animated film. If that is case, then he’s ending his career on a high note indeed. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is his masterpiece. Kaguya isn’t going to appeal to all viewers, because it’s a very different sort of animated film than American audiences typically encounter. The film is deeply rooted in Japanese cultural conventions, takes its time to unfold, and is both sophisticated and elegant in its simplicity. It’s also a treasure. Kaguya has been nominated for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Academy Awards. If it doesn’t win, I’ll be disappointed. It’s not to be missed.
- Bill Hunt