Reviewing Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Elise Bottle is all for a tragic tale packing far more of a knockout finale punch over the traditional fairy-tale happy ending.
This October, I went with a cousin of mine to see Studio Ghibli’s latest animated offering, The Tale of Princess Kaguya.
The movie was amazing, featuring a unique watercolour aesthetic. The film was faithful to the source material, while putting its own unique twist on the story that I am sure is going to have critics coming back for a long time.
In the original folktale, an old bamboo cutter finds a baby inside a stalk of bamboo. Realising the child is a gift from heaven, the cutter and his wife raise the child with the help of gold nuggets that mysteriously appear in the bamboo. Eventually, Kaguya grows into such a beauty that she attracts many suitors, all of whom she turns away. Eventually, Kaguya reveals that she was sent from the Moon and that she must return home. Despite attempts by her foster parents to prevent her leaving the Earth, Kaguya is spirited away by the Moon people and never seen again.
The movie takes the original tragic elements of the story and turns it up to eleven. When the bamboo cutter finds Kaguya, he gets the idea in his head that it’s her destiny to be a great Princess. Thus, he uses the gold to buy a mansion in the city, hires tutors to teach Kaguya to be a “proper” lady and seeks to marry her off to a high-ranking noble. He isn’t doing this for himself, mind you, he’s genuinely convinced that all this is the key to making his beloved Kaguya happy. Unfortunately, Kaguya hates her new life, and she longs for the wild country side. The final straw comes when one suitor gets a little too friendly for Kaguya. By the time the old Bamboo Cutter realises his mistake and tries to make amends, it is too late – Kaguya has called in the calvary and she is whisked back to the moon. Needless to say, I left the theatre in tears.
By comparison, I remember seeing and falling in love with Disney’s The Little Mermaid as a kid, then learning (to my great disappointment) that the ending had been heavily warped from the original story. In the original tale by Hans Christian Anderson, the Little Mermaid doesn’t end up with her prince, but loses his love to another woman. The witch isn’t evil, she’s a seedy back-alley dealer, a neutral entity serving as nothing more than a plot point. The prince’s bride-to-be is just a regular human girl, oblivious to the mess she’s caused. The original story is a tragedy; a woman gives up everything to find love and gets nothing in return, and there’s really no one to blame other than bad luck.
To this day, I feel like Disney cheated me.
Now, I know parents generally prefer the “happy ending” version and I can understand wanting to protect our kids, but honestly, I think those fears are baseless. While here in the West we’ve been spoiling our kids with happy endings galore, in Japan it has been a very different story. Stories like Gon the Little Fox, Ringing Bell and Faithful Elephants are all tragic, tear-jerking tales aimed at children. The former two stories have even been made into animated films, both retaining their tragic endings. Yet, the population of Japan seem no more melancholy or depressed than the rest of the world…as far as I can tell.
In fact, I believe the odd downer ending or two is healthy – life can be unfair, and no matter how hard we try, we’re not always going to win. By giving kids these kinds of stories we can prepare them, emotionally, for what’s coming down the road. Too many happy endings could be giving our kids unrealistic expectations, encouraging them to live in denial.
Then there’s the issue of bad guys. Again, the argument is that a clear-cut villain stops kids from becoming “confused”. I say its brainwashing our kids into becoming narrow-minded and uncompromising. Again, life isn’t simple – things are not black and white and it’s not always easy to tell who is the bad guy. Half of the problems in our word could probably be solved if we just stopped and considered the other person’s point of view.
Putting The Little Mermaid and The Tale of Princess Kaguya side-by-side, I can say with confidence which movie I consider to be superior. Some of the best stories are the ones that challenge us, emotionally and morally. So the next time you see a movie and think it’s too scary, too sad or too difficult for your kid to understand, maybe the real problem is the movie is too scary, too sad or too difficult for you to understand.