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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

March 9th, 2015

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray Combo Pack

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya earned 100% positive reviews and picked up an Oscar nomination. On the other hand, it only managed $1.5 million in limited release, so it wasn't a big enough film to win on Oscar night. Should the film earn a wider audience? Or is the movie aimed more at critics than the average moviegoer?

The Movie

We first meet a Bamboo Cutter as he is doing his job, cutting down bamboo stalks. He sees something he's never seen before, a glowing bamboo stalk. As he approaches, the glow drains from the bamboo and into the ground. From there, he sees a new bamboo shoot appear. As soon as he approaches it, it grows rapidly and blooms, for lack of a better term, revealing a tiny princess. He sees this as a sign that the gods want him to take care of this little girl, so he immediately stops work and returns home to his wife. His wife wants to raise the child, while her husband thinks the child is already perfect. She picks up the tiny princess only to have her turn from a tiny girl to a full-sized baby. They assume this event, and the other immediate events are signs from the heavens telling them they need to raise this child right, for she is to become a princess.

The young girl continues to experience bouts of sudden growth. Because Kaguya has the tendency to grow before your eyes, the other kids call her Takenoko, or Little Bamboo. She quickly becomes friends with those kids, and one other, Sutemaru, who is older. She meets him when he rescues her from a wild boar. (She was playing with the piglets when the mother attacked.) The kids hang out together and for the most part, this is an idyllic childhood. However, the Bamboo Cutter has previously found a bamboo filled with gold and later one filled with silk robes. He realizes the Heavens want him to build a great home for the princess in the capital and raise her like a princess and not a common country girl. This does mean leaving her home and her friends.

When she gets to the city, Kaguya has trouble adapting, as both she and her mother miss the country life. She does her best to please her father, but it is clear life as a princess is not what she is cut out for. Things get more stressful after she comes of age and suitors begin to appear. The five nobles each describe to the princess mythical treasures, like the jewels of the of a mythical rat-skin robe. (It makes more sense when the noble says it, but only a little bit.) Kaguya says she will only marry one of them, if they bring her the treasure they compared her to. This is an impossible task and the suitors leave, as does Kaguya's lady in waiting, the one who was supposed to get her ready for life as a princess.

Is this the end of Kaguya's days as a princess? Or will her father's dream come true?

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a very Japanese animated film, which will be a real asset for most fans of Studio Ghibli, but does partially explain why it never expanded significantly in limited release. The film's watercolor look stands in stark contrast to much more detailed style of animation we have become accustomed to here. The story is also different, because it focuses a lot more on character emotions than plot and action. The film has a slower pace as a result, but packs a stronger emotional punch than most similar films do. It doesn't have the shot to the gut emotional impact that Grave of the Fireflies, which was also directed by Isao Takahata, had. That said, few films are as emotional as Grave of the Fireflies. The film is almost two stories. The first is a story of a childless couple living in the country who are blessed with a special kid. This part of the film is filled with a lot of childlike wonder and enthusiasm. I could have spent two hours in this part of the film. However, it then switches to the city, where the film takes a turn and it is more about a young girl suppressing her wants and desires to do what her father thinks is best. While the first part is a more appealing place to visit, it is the second part that has the most impact and will make the film stay with your longer.

The Extras

The extras are a little unusual. The Blu-ray Combo Pack includes a 40-minute press conference to announce the film's completion. However, there is also a bonus DVD that includes a feature-length making of documentary. It's odd that the bonus disc is a DVD not a Blu-ray, but I can't complain about the quality of the documentary.

The technical presentation is excellent, when you take into account the art style. It is a watercolor-style, so there's not a ton of details and the colors are washed out compared to digitally animated films, for example. However, you can't complain about the transfer, because it shows off the video as well as you could expect. The audio isn't the most complicated I've experienced, but there are also no faults to complain about either. There is clear dialogue and plenty of activity in the surround-sound speakers, but not a lot of dynamic effects.

The Blu-ray costs $23, which is $3 or 15% more than the DVD. That's an excellent price.

The Verdict

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya focuses more on the characters than the actions and combines excellent aesthetics and an emotional story. The quality of extras on the DVD or Blu-ray Combo Pack is more than enough to be worth picking up.

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Filed under: Video Review, Kaguyahime no monogatari, James Caan, Chloë Grace Moretz, Mary Steenburgen, Darren Criss, Isao Takahata