Film Festival Circuit III: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya in Cinemalaya Film Fest

When I heard about “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” being screened for this year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival under the Independents: Asian Showcase section, I told myself I had to take the opportunity cause it’ll never have a regular screening in cinemas here so this is the only chance I got. I managed to tagged along my college friend Anna to watch it with me on August 9, one of the only two screenings for the Isao Takahata gem at the CCP Main Theater.

At first though, I was a little put off by the animation style of the film. It reminded me of the style of another Isao Takahata film, “My Neighbors The Yamadas,” although I haven’t really seen this one fully, partly because I wasn’t so interested. But fortunately, I went ahead to watching Princess Kaguya and I was definitely proven wrong on my apprehension regarding the animation. The film is Isao Takahata’s final film. The director is best known for “Grave of the Fireflies,” which I have seen and really brought me utter sadness and tears. I still find it hard to watch it again.

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The film is based on a 10th century folktale called “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” and is considered the very first Japanese prose narrative from the Tokugawa period. It centers around the bamboo cutter Okina (Takeo Chii) and his discovery of a little child inside a bamboo shoot. He brings her home to his wife Ona (Nobuko Miyamoto), but when she carries the child she suddenly grows into a normal looking baby.

The couple decided to raise the child and naming her Kaguya (Aki Asakura), which means “radiant night” in Japanese. There was a shining light coming out of the bamboo shoot to where Okina found her, thus the name that means radiant night. The little Kaguya becomes friends with the local children and they also noticed how she strangely grows too fast like a bamboo, so they started calling her “takenoko” or little bamboo and developing a special friendship with Sutemaru (Kengo Kora).

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But the mysteries didn’t end with her discovery, Okina found gold coins and elegant silk robes inside the very same bamboo, and he was convinced that Kaguya is a gift from heaven and is destined for nobility. With this Kaguya’s life is changed entirely, from the suburbs to the city to learn the ways and principles of a noble lady fit for the high society.

The news of her elegant beauty has quickly spread, eliciting attentions from noblemen to the emperor. But on the day she was solemnized as Kaguya-hime (Princess Kaguya), she realized how most people only cared about her physical looks and that she’s only being named a princess due to her father’s wealth.

Despite her bold disobedience at times to her father and mentor Lady Sagami (Atsuko Takahata), she still yearns to please her father in the best of her abilities but upon hearing how people deride even her father makes her start to realize that all the things about her nobility is unworthy.

One of my favorite scenes in the film. Just look at that. 

One of the strong themes tackled in the film is how women of nobility are stripped of their free will, thrown into situations other people have decided for them without consideration to their opinions and feelings. Another is how women are merely treated as possessions and status symbols and how they are lured by men with money, flamboyant words and promises.

And yes not to forget the animation itself that initially turned me off. I have to say it really is majestic. The hand-drawn or brush-stroke style makes every scene feel and look like its being sketch as it happens on screen. The whole film is a masterpiece painting that comes alive before the audience. It can also  be likened to traditional Japanese painting such as The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

And of course, a Ghibli film is not complete without its accompaniment of musical score from perennial genius and Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi that complements each and every moment of the film, from the joyful discovery of Kaguya, her early experiences as a human, to saying goodbyes, to good memories of friendship, and new beginnings and challenges as a princess.

Infinitely beautiful, truly one of the very best animated films ever made.

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5 Centimeters Per Second: Of Distance and Time

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“Hey. They say it’s five centimeters per second…the speed of falling cherry blossom petals is five centimeters per second…” – Akari

I was greeted by this very phrase from the first few minutes of the movie. I haven’t seen any real cherry blossoms but it made me wonder if they really do fall at the speed of five centimeters per second. I find it a lovely backdrop and a perfect catalyst to start the story of love of Tohno Takaki and Shinohara Akari, who started as little kids who grew closer during elementary school.

It was recommended to me by a work colleague but I had only gotten around to watch it recently. It was like a new venture for me to take on a Japanese animated film that is non-Ghibli and non-Hayao Miyazaki made; so I didn’t really know what to expect. In one of these past few days, I just had this sudden urge to see it and other Japanese films that were recommended to me.

The movie is divided into three acts: The Chosen Cherry Blossoms, Cosmonaut and 5 Centimeters Per Second. The style is a new take in my opinion in tackling an animated romantic drama. I specifically like how the different stages of Takaki and Akari’s life are depicted in three sections, but definitely with more focus on Takaki’s perspective. The style makes it highly introspective and allows a deep exploration to the characters, especially Takaki. But I must agree at some point that the story runs a little slow. But since I’m the kind of person who likes introspection, so I take the introspective part a positive one.

Act 1: The Chosen Cherry Blossoms

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In act one, this is where I see them as little kids who seem to be a bit out of the ordinary. Sharing similar interests and almost the same personality, they instantly became the subject of tease among their classmates for always being together. Back to the first scene, Takaki and Akari are watching the cherry blossoms fall when she suddenly runs to the  other side of a train crossing. After the train has passed, Akari tells him that she hopes they could watch the cherry blossoms once again. And that is the beginning of real life for them.

The animation from this very scene alone is simply indescribably beautiful for me.

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Akari had to transfer school and that’s when Takaki is left behind. They were kids, they didn’t make their own choices back then and it struck Takaki as he couldn’t do anything for her, knowing that she didn’t want it to happen either. When it was time for Takaki to transfer, they decided to finally see each other. Now 13, it was the first time for Takaki to be travelling so far to a place he’d never been to just to see Akari.

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When they had set the date, March 4; it was supposed to be Spring and Akari was looking forward to seeing Takaki and hoping that the cherry blossoms would fall on that day. However, just as life had started for them when they were kids, it’s nature this time that’s somehow hindering them. It rained then it snowed hard, and when that happens, one should know what to expect. But despite the worry that she might have gone home, there was no going back for Takaki.

It felt so nerve-wracking to see Takaki as he waits for every extended train stop due to the weather, as if every passing hour is killing him. His mind filled with thoughts of losing the chance to ever see Akari again.

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It was like against all odds. I was half expecting that she wouldn’t be there for what seemed like forever waiting for Takaki to appear. This is by far, one of the best moments and one of my favorite scenes. It made me happy that they were able to share this moment with each other, after that separation and their deep longing to see each other again.

“In that moment, I felt like I knew where eternity, our hearts and our souls all lay. I felt as though we had shared all the experiences of my 13 years. And then in the next moment, I was suddenly filled with an insufferable sadness. Akari’s warmth and her soul… How could I take them in, and where could I bring them? I felt that sad because I didn’t have those answers. I clearly knew from that point on, we wouldn’t be together forever. The overwhelming weight of our lives to come and the uncertainty of time hung over us.” – Takaki 

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From the very start, everything was just so scenically beautiful for me. The cherry blossoms, the bullet train, and the snow. But then again, despite how everything seems to be beautiful; life knocks you over back to reality.

Act 2 – Cosmonaut

The dream

The dream

“It must really be a lonelier journey that anyone could imagine. To just press forward through the true pitch darkness. Barely encountering even a single hydrogen atom. Wholeheartedly believing you’ll come closer to discovering the secrets of the universe within the unfathomable abyss of space. I wonder how far we should go. How far can we go?” – Takaki 

The cosmonaut

The cosmonaut

In act two, there was no presence of Akari at all in Takaki’s life, not even those exchange of letters. Instead, Sumida Kanae, a surfer girl who’s in the same class as Takaki is often seen with him after school. Despite how noticeable that Kanae has feelings for Takaki, she even waits for him so they can go home together; Takaki remains oblivious about her feelings.

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There were scenes in the film that Takaki was seen writing messages. I instantly assumed that since it’s the era of the mobile phones, communication between them has become easier. But there’s always a catch to it, he never actually sends them to anyone. He writes on his mobile a brief story about a dream he had with a girl in another planet walking in a field, but he says he can’t make out her face. Of course, that’s how dreams are but as a viewer, I clearly know that it was a dream with Akari. And the fact the even in his subconscious, Akari’s presence is largely everywhere; it tells me that he’s been stuck there. He may have been doing things in life normally but inside him ever since that day, everything had no real weight for him anymore. He stopped having strong emotions, no special memories, no happiness neither sorrow, not even scars.

This stage of Takaki’s life reminds me of Tsukuru from Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Like him, Tsukuru had been distraught by a rejection he suffered from four of his best friends, to the point that he deliberately started wandering from life. And while Takaki and Tsukuru’s experiences are not in the exact manner, they share one thing: the shadows of the past. For both Takaki and Tsukuru, it’s those mixed memories of the past that’s been bogging them down, affecting their relationships with other people without them even having to say it.

Act 3 – 5 Centimeters Per Second

“Then one day I realized that my heart was withering, and in it there was nothing but pain.” – Takaki

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On a day when cherry blossoms start to fall, Takaki was walking at a train crossing and passes by a girl. He looks back to see if it was Akari just when the train passes by, stopping them to confirm each other’s identity.

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In this final act, it shows how different the lives Takaki and Akari pursued. At first glance, it could be said that Akari had very well moved on and seemed to be content with her life. It is heartbreaking to see how there will always be that one person who had moved on, who seemed to have found that line where life and love get along well. Although still having those memories, she carries it with her as only things that remind her of a blissful past that will no longer affect her present.

Between Takaki and Akari, for me it was more difficult for Takaki. Having to bear and feeling helpless with the growing distance between them that’s setting them apart, and eventually having to go on with his path with those feelings from when they were kids still clinging to him like a shadow.

Despite having promised to write to each other, at some point one of them got tired and stopped writing letters or rather both of them had been weakened in the process; by then the ever growing distance and life’s unpredictability had caught up to break them.

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But then again, had they gathered up their courage to say what they wanted before saying goodbye here; things could have been different. And the letters that were meant to be read with words they wanted to tell each other were forever left in the past.

FotorCreatedThe film is something for people looking for introspective realism in animated films, without the fluff and common romantic drama themes. I highly recognize the creative use of metaphors, with the train that connects people but also sets them apart, the cosmonaut that Takaki indirectly likens to people’s lives and at how life can be so indefinite and unpredictable, and the cherry blossoms that represent the impermanence of people’s relationships; at how humans often come together and slowly drift apart and the sluggishness of life.

But then again, I would have wanted them to have experienced all those memories as adults rather than as kids.