Monday, February 29, 2016

Princess Kaguya

Here is Takahato Isao's The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no Monogatari). It is a fitting capstone to his long and illustrious directing career, which began with Horus: Prince of the Sun. This release has one purpose, and one purpose only: to provide a watchable set of English subtitles. We started from Fussoir's rip of the Japanese Blu-Ray and its official English subtitles. The missing lines have been filled in. The timing has been fixed. Language and grammar have been tweaked. The credits have been subtitled. And that's it. Call it Minimally Invasive Fansubbing.

Now, I don't agree with every decision that the creators took about the subtitles. There are no honorifics for example, which seems to be Ghibli's standard practice. I don't mind most of the time, but for a movie set in 10th century Japan, lack of honorifics, and the insight they provide to subtleties of class and role, is a loss. Localizing Kaguya's childhood nickname as "Lil' Bamboo" sticks in my craw because of my general distaste for using American dialect as a substitute for Japanese dialect. The dialog seems highly compressed, perhaps to allow for slow readers. But I suspect most Western audiences would listen to a dub anyway.

ninjacloud retimed the official subtitles. Skr filled in the missing lines; he made no other revisions to the original script. I edited and typeset. Calyrica and konnakude did QC. The raw is from fussoir. Of the many audio and subtitle tracks in the original, only the English and Japanese sets have been retained. The dub is fine, as dubs of Ghibli movies usually are. In fact, it's wordier than the subtitles.

Some viewers may disagree with the removal of the other audio and subtitle tracks and may want a version with French or Chinese audio or subs. For that, Fussoir's original release is just fine. This version is strictly for an English-speaking audience. If you prefer the original release but want to use these subtitles, a package with the script and fonts can be found here.

As for the movie itself: it is stunning in every respect. Its leisurely tempo and simple artwork belie the complexity of its themes and the cumulative emotional impact of the story. It distills the Japanese sense of mono no aware - the impermanence of life - more simply and elegantly than any Japanese movie I have seen. For me, what lingers is Kaguya's heartbroken reaction to the loss of the world she has known and come to love. Takahato is a poet of loss, as he first demonstrated in Grave of the Fireflies. His work here is more understated but no less impactful.

Kaguya can be seen as a tragedy in three acts. The first covers Kaguya-hime's miraculous discovery by a rural bamboo cutter and her joyful childhood in the country. The second and longest section is about her time in the capital and her increasing unhappiness at all the restrictions placed on her in her assigned role as a "noble princess." The last and shortest shows her grief and despair as her time on Earth comes to its end. The first section is joyful, and the third is tragic. The second is in many ways infuriating, but it is also a deep examination of the conflicting requirements of self, family, society, and custom. Some critics have described the middle section as an indictment of unthinking patriarchy, but I doubt that Takahata would agree (just as he has stated, quite firmly, that Grave of the Fireflies is not an anti-war movie). He portrays his characters and their situation, he observes events and interactions, and he lets viewers draw their own conclusions.

The voice actors are drawn from the world of film rather than anime and are thus mostly unknown to a Western anime audience. For example, Miyamoto Nobuko, who plays Kaguya's mother and also narrates, has been nominated for Best Actress at Japan's Academy Awards eight times, but she has never appeared in an anime before. (I saw her in 1987's Tampopo, which is well worth watching.) Takeo Chii, who plays Kaguya's father, appeared in more than 70 films before he died in 2012; Kaguya was his last role, and some extra dialog was recorded by Miyaki Yuji. Kaguya is played by Asakura Aki, a young film actress. The music is by Miyazaki's "house composer" Joe Hisaishi and is wonderfully appropriate and subtle.

The artwork reflects the pared-to-the-bone simplicity of Takahata's later works, first evident in My Neighbor the Yamadas. At times it has the beauty of watercolors, at others the simplicity of children's drawings. It always serves the story. Consider, for example, the dream(?) sequence during Kaguya's naming banquet, when she flees the crass coarseness of the party-goers. The artwork changes from rough and almost ugly as she hears their crude gossip, to the headlong velocity of charcoal drawing as she flees, and then to dreamy watercolors when she arrives back at her country home. The drawing styles reflect Kaguya's feelings and her shifting moods of anger, panic, homesickness, and resignation with little or no recourse to dialog. It's a beautiful, incredibly sad sequence.

Without further ado, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

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