The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫の物語, Isao Takahata, 2013)

no3_kaguya_nikonikoboard_outSo, Studio Ghibli is no more. For the moment anyway – both of the old masters have hung up their paint brushes for good, intent on indulging other pursuits, or so they say. Neither has yet found a suitable apprentice to succeed them and so all Ghibli’s revels are now ended, the staff is broken, the book is burned and it’s time we all went home. We’ve not quite set them free yet though, 2014 saw both the founders release their “final masterpiece” in a pattern that was intended to mimic their early success – the double header of the gently melancholic yet uplifting My Neighbour Totoro and the utterly devastating Grave of the Fireflies. Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises read like a deeply moving final poem – a artist’s apology for his failings as man. Takahata’s, in a pattern reminiscent of his career overall, feels in some ways harsher. He pushes deeper both artistically but also emotionally, less cynical but also perhaps less forgiving. Based on the classic Japanese folktale by the same title, often translated into English as The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is another late career masterwork from Takahata that cuts right to the quick of what it means to be human.

Bamboo cutter Okina makes his everyday journey up the mountain to cut bamboo, but this time finds a single stalk shining strangely. When he cuts into it, a tiny yet elegant lady is sleeping inside. Quickly realising she must be a princess sent from heaven, he carries her home to his wife in whose hands she suddenly morphs into a screaming human child. The couple embrace their miraculous gift heartily and raise the girl as if she were their own. “L’il Bamboo” as the other village kids call her, grows at an alarming rate, but enjoys an idyllic country childhood full of long hot summers, juicy, ripe melons pinched from a neighbour’s garden and fantastic adventures. However, another shining bamboo stalk has yet more presents for Okina in the form of gold and expensive kimonos. Believing his little princess is intended for the life of a noble woman, not that of the lowly daughter of a bamboo cutter, he buys a big house in the city filled with teachers and servants. However, one person’s idea of “best” can be quite different from another’s, and no matter how much you love someone, there are lines that cannot be crossed.

Li’l Bamboo is an elemental creature, meant for frolicking with frogs and dancing under cherry blossoms but Princess Kaguya, the name given to her by a nobleman as she comes of age, is forced into the constrained life of a court lady. Imprisoned inside her castle, separated from her childhood friends and confined to a life of sedately studying “the feminine arts” Kaguya’s once wild love of life seems to dissipate under the weight of adulthood. Even on a rare (and secret) journey outside to once again view the transient cherry blossoms, she decides to return almost immediately after encountering a mother and her children who rapidly kneel, apologise for their presence and leave. Feeling the ever present barrier between herself and “ordinary” people because of her fine clothes and appearance, Kaguya retreats despondently. However, as relative “new money” to the noble set, she doesn’t fit in there either.

The life that Okina envisages for his “princess” maybe one that society regards as better, but that isn’t to say it’s the best for everyone. Okina’s tragedy is that he never stops to consider his adopted daughter’s own feelings. The responsibility he takes is too great and he never sees that he’s stifling the gift nature has given him. Kaguya goes along with most of this because he’s her father and she doesn’t want to displease him, but she’s constantly setting free caged animals because she herself feels so imprisoned. Okina’s desire to ensure his daughter’s future happiness has only made her miserable and in the end will cost them both dearly. As common now as it’s ever been, this classic miscommunication between parent and child is made all the more tragic because it has love at its core.

Unfolding like an illustrated scroll, Princess Kaguya is full of beautiful and imaginative artistry. With its beguiling watercolour-like aesthetic, the film often breaks into breathtaking, impressionistic spectacle that can allow a girl to dissolve into the landscape or summon dragons from the clouds and waves. It’s a style that’s perfectly suited to the classic nature of the story which is only aided by the traditional, folk-tale narration and whimsical score from Joe Hisaishi (working with Takahata here for the first time despite his long association with Studio Ghibli as a whole).

A fitting end to a long and sometimes difficult career, Princess Kaguya is, in the end, a tale of sad yet inevitable partings. Still, though Kaguya was often unhappy on Earth, ultimately she doesn’t want to leave nor to forget her experiences be they of joy or sorrow. Perhaps better appreciated from a perspective of age, Princess Kaguya is a sorrowful tale in many ways, full of misunderstandings and missed opportunities yet there is great beauty in it too. All things must pass, and we must bid goodbye to Studio Ghibli (for now, at least) though painful as it may be, we ought to be grateful for having had something to grieve.

The Snow White Murder Case (白ゆき姫殺人事件, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2014)

Review of The Snow White Murder Case (白ゆき姫殺人事件, Shiro Yuki Hime Satsujin Jiken) published on UK-anime.net


The sensationalisation of crime has been mainstay of the tabloid press ever since its inception and a much loved subject for gossips and curtain twitchers since time immemorial. When social media arrived, it brought with it hundreds more avenues for every interested reader to have their say and make their own hideously uniformed opinions public contributing to this ever growing sandstorm of misinformation. Occasionally, or perhaps more often than we’d like to admit, these unfounded rumours have the power to ruin lives or push the accused person to a place of unbearable despair. So when the shy and put upon office worker Miki Shirono (Mao Inoue) becomes the prime suspect in the brutal murder of a colleague thanks some fairly convincing circumstantial evidence and the work of one would-be microblogging detective, the resulting trial by Twitter has a profound effect on her already shaky sense of self worth.

The body of Miki Noriko (Nanao) has been found in a wood burned to a crisp after being viciously stabbed multiple times. Beautiful, intelligent and well connected, Noriko seems to have been well loved by her colleagues who are falling over themselves to praise her kind and generous nature, proclaiming disbelief that anyone would do such a thing to so good a person. One of these co-workers, Risako (Misako Renbutsu), happens to have gone to school with TV researcher, Akahoshi (Go Ayano) who’s a total twitter addict and can’t keep anything to himself, and decides to give him the lowdown on the goings on in her office. Apparently the offices of the popular beauty product Snow White Soap was a hotbed of office pilfering filled with interpersonal intrigue of boy friend stealing and complicated romantic entanglements. Working alongside Noriko and Risako was another ‘Miki’, Shirono (Mao Inoe), who tends to be overshadowed by the beautiful and confident Noriko who shares her surname. Shy and isolated, Shirono seems the archetypal office loner and the picture Risako paints of her suggests she’s the sort of repressed, bitter woman who would engage in a bit of revenge theft and possibly even unhinged enough to go on a stabbing spree. Of course, once you start to put something like that on the internet, every last little thing you’ve ever done becomes evidence against you and Shirono finds herself the subject of an internet wide manhunt.

In some ways, the actual truth of who killed Noriko and why is almost irrelevant. In truth, the solution to the mystery itself is a little obvious and many people will probably have encountered similar situations albeit with a less fatal outcome. Safe to say Noriko isn’t quite as white as she’s painted and the film is trying to wrong foot you from the start by providing a series of necessarily unreliable witnesses but in many ways that is the point. There are as many versions of ‘the truth’ as there are people and once an accusation has been made people start to temper their recollections to fit with the new narrative they’ve been given. People who once went to school with Shirono instantly start to recall how she was a little bit creepy and even using evidence of a childhood fire to imply she was some kind of witch obsessed with occult rituals to get revenge on school bullies. Only one university friend stands up for Shirono but, crucially, she is the first one to publicly name her and goes on to give a lot of embarrassing and unnecessary personal details which although they help her case are probably not very relevant. Even this act of seeming loyalty is exposed as a bid for Twitter fame as someone on the periphery of events tries to catapult themselves into the centre by saying “I knew her – I have the real story”.

Of course, things like this have always happened long before the internet and social media took their primary place in modern life. There have always been those things that ‘everybody knows’ that quickly become ‘evidence’ as soon as someone is accused of something. Some people (usually bad people) can cope with these accusations fairly well and carry on with their lives regardless. Other people, like Shirono, are brought down in many ways by their own goodness. What Risako paints as creepy isolation is really mostly crippling shyness. Shirono is one of those innately good people who often puts herself last and tries to look after others – like bringing a handmade bento everyday for a nutritionally troubled colleague or coming up with a way for a childhood friend to feel better about herself. These sorts of people are inherently more vulnerable to these kinds of attacks because they already have an underlying sense of inferiority. As so often happens, this whole thing started because Shirono tried to do something she already thought was wrong and of course it turned into a catastrophe which resulted in her being accused of a terrible crime. The person who manipulated her into this situation likely knew she would react this way and that’s why meek people like Shirono are the ultimate fall guy material.

Like Yoshihiro Nakamura’s previous films (Fish Story, The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker – both available from Third Window Films), The Snow White Murder Case is full of intersecting plot lines and quirky characters and manages to imbue a certain sense of cosmic irony and black humour into what could be quite a bleak situation. The Twitter antics are neatly displayed through some innovative on screen graphics and the twin themes of ‘the internet reveals the truth’ and ‘the internet accuses falsely’ are never far from the viewer’s mind. It’s testimony to the strength of the characterisation (and of the performances) that Shirono can still say despite everything she’s been through ‘good things will happen’ in attempt to cheer up someone who unbeknownst to her is the author of all her troubles, and have the audience believe it too. A skilful crime thriller in which the crime is the least important thing, The Snow White Murder Case might quite not have the emotional pull of some of the director’s other work but it’s certainly a timely examination of the power of rumour in the internet age.


Original trailer (English subtitles)