Tag Archives: little bamboo

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya: 7 STARS

*Having just retired for the first time (Something I plan to do at least 5 times) I now have ample time for watching wonderful films. However, even if you have not retired (and I think you should consider retiring because it’s so fun) you should make time in your day for this one because it is a feminist masterpiece of outstanding beauty and there can be no higher praise than that. Before we begin gazing in wonder at its however a brief note on last week’s post.You should probably all read this article about the role of Dr Helen Cho in the Avengers because it says many interesting things about the importance of representation that I am woefully unequipped to articulate. Also it’s from the Toast so it is of course written with grace and wit – http://the-toast.net/2015/05/11/helen-cho-age-of-ultron-representation/*

(SPOILERS. So originally I thought that this was a really old film because of the charming sketchy animation and the fact that it isn’t directed by Hayao Miyazaki, golden boy of Studio Ghibli that he is, but in fact it came out in 2013 so the spoiler warning is relevant. CN Misogyny and threat of sexual assault/rape. This film is about misogyny and if you’re just in the mood for some rollicking Japanese fun then I strongly recommend My Neighbour Totoro. However this dark subject matter is handled with such charm and grace that one feels that perfect combination of belief in the possibility of fighting against oppression and recognition that the struggle will never truly be over and will always be fierce (Did I mention that I love this film?))

“A princess does not show her teeth when she smiles” – Lady Sagami

I have always found Studio Ghibli films to be a happy place for women to adventure and fight and grow and be real people and this was no exception. However The Tale of Princess Kaguya is essentially a sad one, mainly, it seems, because it is set in the real world where Princesses do not get to ride into war on the backs of giant wolves but where they must move as little as possible and gratefully acquiesce to being fought over by strangers. To see a little girl crushed by the world is a terrible thing but, as I’ve already said, the belief that she gives you that that same world is worth fighting for makes watching this film a beautiful experience, rather than an experience that makes you want to go and find the nearest person constraining the behaviour of a woman and ram their head up a chimney. Well maybe that too.

STAR: The Bechdel Test

– STAR: Developed female relationships

(So the second star here is probably the most debatable. No doubt Princess Kaguya and her mum speak to one another, about gardening and life and going to the moon but only briefly and I guess that some would argue that their relationship is not developed. I can see where this imaginary challenger to my star allocation is going with this. One of the most terrible things about this film is that ‘The Bamboo Cutter’s Wife’ (not a great start) stands silently by while her husband pushes the Princess into a life she clearly despises. You can tell that the BCW thinks that her daughter should be allowed more freedom and she does defend her right to the various creative tasks she chooses to escape into, and accompanies her on her trip to see the cherry blossoms. But she doesn’t stand up and say This Is Wrong and some would say that that crucial omission limits the development of their relationship. However what I would say to these imaginary challengers (who seem to have grown in number) is that the BCW is also a woman, a woman who, we can presume, has been under different but comparable pressures to those the princess faces and that for her to defy her husband after he has abandoned his business and built a palace all for love of their daughter would be to defy a lifetime of both her own oppression and the patriarchal values of the society in which she lives. It is terrible that all the support this mother can give her daughter is an enthusiasm for her interests and an occasional embrace but it does not make her an evil person and it does not make their relationship any less complex.)

STAR: Non- stereotyped Female Characters

– STAR: Developed, prominent female characters

(Despite all my banging on about the BCW really the Princess stands alone here although her mother, Lady Sagami, and her maid, do mark this as a film where women shape each other’s lives in ways unrelated to men. Despite being a magical being grown from a bamboo stalk the Princess or Little Bamboo as she should perhaps more properly be known is never portrayed as an example of the ‘feminine mystique’ which allows so many films to entirely avoid exploring their female characters because they’re so damn mysterious. She is a lovely baby, a lovely adventurous and naive child and a lovely young woman. Where a lesser film would make the tasks she sets her suitors into a fun game where her cleverness is paraded Isao Takahata makes it very clear that this is an act born of desperation with dire consequences (the death of one of the suitors) which causes the Princess unbearable grief, even though it frees her from his suit. In much the same way the handsome suitor who gives her a flower and professes his love, only to shriek in horror as he sees what he thinks is the Princess but is in fact her fat little maid, is not the victim of a clever ploy where having an ugly wife is a hilarious punishment. The Princess wants him to pass that test of character because she wants to believe in his love, and his failure devastates her, while her maid, who seems unoffended by others’ perception of her attractiveness, berates the stupid young man for his shallowness – How many mountain flowers have you plucked only to abandon them to shave their heads and hide in a nunnery? – romantic gallantry is shown here as hollow and terrifying. This is not a Princess who can be saved by a Prince)

No excessive air of misogyny

–  No rigid adherence to gender norms

(Here the star system seems a little limited. For the film is not in itself misogynistic, rather it is about misogyny, the constraint of female experience, the commodification of women, in short about the patriarchy. But these stars are supposed to function as a guide to viewers about what to expect in terms of the representation of women in a film. They are not a recommendation nor a warning away they are merely designed to be informative. Also it cannot be said that misogyny doesn’t threaten even this lovely film. Are we not meant to condemn the silent mother and the sinister Lady Sagami for their complicity in a system which hurts the princess, however trapped in it they may themselves be? Is not the simple ugly fat maid a figure of comedy even if she seems entirely unabashed and impervious to other’s perception of her? And is not our heroine’s love interest a man who is ready to leave his wife and baby for the chance to be with a princess? (The answer to all of these rather pretentiously put rhetorical questions is, in my opinion, yes, in case that wasn’t obvious) The world of this film is a dark place and you cannot make a film about such a dark place without getting a little murky yourself)

STAR: No Excessive Female Exposure or Sexualisation

STAR: No objectification of the female body

(Partly the beauty of children’s films rearing its beautiful head again, but also partly an enjoyment of the female body in motion, as a tool for play and exploring a landscape and indeed breast feeding. Little Bamboo’s body is entirely concealed when she becomes the Princess. Having  proudly waved her bottom in the air as a baby she is now just a vehicle for her beautiful gowns. We are shown that objectification and enjoyment of the body are entirely antithetical, a lesson I for one always enjoy being reminded of)

STAR: No Gratuitous or Trivialising Scenes of Rape or Male Violence Against Women

– No threat of male violence against women

(There is a scene where the Emperor embraces the Princess, clearly against her will and attempts to abduct her. The fact that this causes the Princess to temporarily vanish may seem like an easy escape, an insertion of a fantasy element to take the issue away from sexual violence. Perhaps that is true but it must also be said that this attempted rape is discussed as such, and is presented as a violation which threatens the Princess’s very humanity. No one could glory in this or secretly enjoy it, it is simply horrible, as it should be)

So 7 stars, and 5 Bonus Points. 1 for a female co-writer, Riko Sakaguchi, 1 for BME women, which in this case is everyone. Obviously from a Japanese perspective this film in no way tries to explore problems faced by women in an ethnic minority, but from the perspective of a Western film watcher it does provide that role. 1 for working class women, although I do think the danger of idolising working class life and suggesting that the life of a rich woman is worse than that of a poor one which is never really going to be true is the greatest danger this great film faces (if Sutemaru gets beaten in the street for stealing what might happen to his female companions who share his lifestyle?) 1 for older women, in this case the BCW and 1 for explicit discussion of feminist issues because, in my opinion, this is a film about feminism even if its creators wouldn’t necessarily call it that. Bravo Studio Ghibli is all that can really be said. if you want a magical experience that also makes you want to smash the patriarchy then this is the film for you.

*A note on Japanese culture. Clearly too vast a subject for a note to be sufficient but basically that’s my point. I think the worst trap someone could fall into when talking about this film is to say ‘Look at how terrible the Princess’s life is, classic misogynistic Japan thank god we live in the free thinking West where everything is fine and all the little girls are treated so nicely.’ While some of the specific practices in this film are specifically Japanese no one is exempt from the maltreatment of women (like Cirsei says in Game of Thrones: “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls”) And let us not forget that this is a Japanese film, so little Japanese girls get to watch this, while we are left with Frozen. No high horses for us when it comes to children’s films*