clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

'The Tale of the Princess Kaguya' is a surprisingly feminist fairy tale

New, 23 comments

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a beautifully drawn, tender, heartfelt film. I knew going in after watching a few trailers that it was going to be an emotional experience, and it was.

Warning: spoilers for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya ahead.

What I didn't expect was how relevant and resonant it would be to me, as a modern western woman. Kaguya touches intelligently on class issues, but more than anything, it presents the struggles of a woman at odds with her oppressive society.

Studio Ghibli's latest is an adaptation of a Japanese fairy tale about an otherworldly being who comes down to earth. A rural bamboo cutter finds a tiny, glowing princess in the forest one day. He brings the sleeping creature home to his wife, and it miraculously takes on the form of a baby girl.

The bamboo cutter and his wife raise the baby as their own. These early scenes are about as sweet and tender as anything I've seen in a film in years. Kaguya explores her new world as a tiny baby, an expression of awe and delight on her face. She learns to scoot around by watching the frogs in her house, much to the delight of her parents. She takes her awkward (and adorable) first steps while other children from the village cheer on. There's obvious love and affection in the family and in the community.

Little Kaguya grows up to be a normal girl — albeit one who experiences supernatural growth spurts from time to time, and inexplicably knows the lyrics to folk songs. She loves playing with the boys from the village — exploring the land, getting into trouble, having adventures. The boys accept her as one of their own, and she is happy as can be. In these scenes, the film sets up a respect for and love of nature and living off the land.

Learning to be a "proper lady" means stamping out her adventurous spirit

But, one day, her father finds gold in the woods, and taking it as a sign from heaven, insists on building a mansion in the city and setting up Kaguya as a "proper lady." That means enduring painful beautification techniques and basically stamping out her adventurous spirit.

This is where Kaguya starts commenting on what it means to be a woman in this world, a person that makes little noise and has few passions. This is what hit me hardest, in presenting the authentic experience of women who don't fit the mold society wants to put them in.

Kaguya has her eyebrows plucked and her teeth blackened. She's taught how to be quiet, move with courtly grace and never laugh too loudly. It's all in the service of attracting men — rich men who will presumably marry Kaguya and more or less be the master of her fate.

At a soiree announcing her eligibility for marriage, she is all but put on display for these men. Except, she is never actually heard from or seen — the idea of her is enough to attract elite men from far and wide, and she hides, silent, in an inner chamber in her house. In the film's most stirring scene, she escapes and flees back to the countryside.

In the film's most stirring scene, she completely abandons the oppressive structure that keeps her locked up

Stylistically, the scene is rendered in raw, rougher drawings, Kaguya's frustration and rage made visible in the art itself. It's a distinctly feminist moment — a young, caged woman wants out of the oppressive structure that keeps her locked up, silent and proper.

It's angry, raw and resonant. Kaguya wants to be herself, she wants to be free. She runs and tears her fancy clothes, so that she arrives in the mountains in rags. This brought me back to my own childhood, as a little girl who proudly identified as a "tomboy" and preferred to play sports and run around outside all day, rather than do anything stereotypically "girly." It reminded me of all the cute little dresses and curlers in my hair that I needed to be bribed into for family events, so I could look like a proper little lady. Like Kaguya, all I wanted to do was go play in the woods.

So much of what Kaguya has to say is relevant to the modern audience. Women — in media and in real life — are still treated as "trophy wives," objects to be won or put on display. So many women are pressured to achieve impossible beauty standards right here in 2014. Unhealthy weight loss behaviors, hair removal and excessive make-up are just modern western versions of the discomforts Kaguya endures.

princess kaguya hair

Kaguya puts up with everything to please her father. The clueless bamboo cutter is presented as a simple man doing what he thinks will make his daughter happy, but he doesn't listen to her, and he doesn't understand. In one scene, he blasts into the room, excited to tell Kaguya and his wife about a persistent suitor. Frustrated, Kaguya expresses only anger and frustration. Her mother admonishes her father, blurting "Do you still not understand?" but he is only baffled. In his mind, he can't fathom why a beautiful young girl wouldn't want to get married to a rich guy. Cue a thousand years of independent women slapping their foreheads and sighing.

Kaguya ultimately escapes this oppressive world. It's too much of a burden to be a woman in this society, her wild spirit cannot be tamed. As much as the ending is a tearjerker, it's also empowering. Kaguya gets out. She never has to marry a man who will keep her trapped, nor does she have to hide who she is and what she loves. She's emotional, supernaturally talented and complicated, a living creature. A woman with an independent spirit, she's "too much" for this world.

That the story — and the film's framing — paint her in this light is heartening. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya doesn't exactly offer any solutions for real-life women who are oppressed by society — Kaguya gets out because, well, she's a supernatural being. This is a fairy tale, after all. But it does present a woman's struggles, and, in showing just how oppressive rigid gender roles can be, posits that untamed spirits should remain precisely that.