Why ‘Princess Kaguya’ Deserved Best Animated Feature
Nominees for the title of 2015’s Best Animated Feature at the Oscars this year were dominated, as usual, by American blockbusters, adaptations and sequels that delighted the children and critics’ children across the nation, although two foreign productions were also chosen as entries, this year being an international production, Song of the Sea, alongside Japan’s most recent Ghibli film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Unlike the Golden Globes’ Best Animated Feature Film award which went to How to Train Your Dragon 2, Disney’s Big Hero 6 ended up taking the prestigious title of Best Animated Feature. While both Big Hero 6, a film set in the futuristic world of San Fransokyo, a combination of San Francisco and Tokyo’s stylistic qualities, and Princess Kaguya, based on a popular and well-known folk tale, reflect family values, the importance of sacrifice, and a Japanese flare, based on originality alone, Princess Kaguya deserved more recognition than it received.
While critics or movie-goers unfamiliar with Japanese culture might not have heard of the folk tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a tale that features the Moon Princess born inside a stalk of bamboo, proposed to by five adventuring suitors and who eventually leaves the world to go back to the moon where she is from, one can feel comfortable with cultural references in Big Hero 6. Although the film’s city streets feature signs in Japanese kanji, sushi, abundant vending machines like the real Tokyo and a massive reworking of the Golden Gate Bridge to resemble a massive red Japanese torii, one doesn’t even have to recognize any of this to enjoy the plot. Meanwhile Kaguya features a young woman stifled by the rules and regulations of an ancient Japanese court with traditional rural settings.
It’s not surprising that Oscar voters who may only know about nominated animated features by tagging along to whatever their son or daughter wants to see would overlook films that aren’t American blockbusters. According to the Hollywood Reporter’s “Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot” piece from this year, one unfortunately ignorant anonymous critic not only falsely named the two non-American animated features Chinese but also wrote them off simply because they were more obscure than the rest. For these reasons, Kaguya may not have gotten the acclaim it deserved for in order to truly understand its originality one needs to understand where the film comes from.
In the original folk tale of the Bamboo Cutter there is more of an emphasis on Kaguya’s five suitors seeking to win her hand in marriage and less on the psychological aspects of being an outsider both in terms of class and in that she will eventually have to return to the moon and leave her adoptive parents behind. By focusing on the ridiculousness of both Kaguya’s class-minded adoptive father and the five greedy suitors the adaptation is able to move beyond a simpler folk tale and address real modern day concerns of women’s choices in their own future and international concerns of upward mobility.
While Big Hero 6 is in no way a bad or unentertaining film as it features emotionally powerful scenes such as two key moments of loss and sacrifice, it seems to be playing too much into the hands of old clichés, particularly ones found in comic books. For instance, there are two main suspects in the audience’s mind when the mysterious figure shows up: Alistair Krei, the greedy entrepreneur and Professor Callaghan. Although Callaghan seems benevolent, Krei is too obvious a choice for villain. The revealing of Krei as the mastermind would create no shock or surprise and yet, the actual development is equally as lackluster because he is the only real option. While suspense isn’t everything in films, the entire film has minor flaws as it is fairly straight forward. Audiences have seen young protagonists who have lost loved ones and who fight in their memory. Audiences are familiar with a band of misfits teaming up to fight a dangerous supervillain. Audiences can be moved by the film’s effort, but this doesn’t make it any less conventional. Perhaps the film deserved to win because it knew what it was doing and made viewers feel comfortable with it, but the Oscars should be critically-acclaimed because the winning films push the boundaries in terms of both style and substance.
From Kaguya-hime’s unique brush-stroke-heightened style to the emphasis on Princess Kaguya as an independent young woman struggling to come to terms with her eventual departure, the film resonates on multiple levels if audiences allow it to sink in and feel a little more familiar.
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