Friday, December 19, 2014

2014 in Shit: The Tale of Princess Kaguya

The Tale of Princess Kaguya was my favorite movie this year. So now that that's out of the way.

You probably heard about Princess Kaguya because it was originally slated to be released as a double feature with Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises, the first time since the two directors released My Neighbour Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies together that this would have been done. Production issues happened, or something like that, and Princess Kaguya got pushed back. Both did end up coming out (in the USA at least) this year, though on either side of it. I had long forgotten that Takahata's film was still slated to be released, and only happened to run across it as a trailer for Birdman. Even then, the film looked interesting if not amazing; the clearly ukiyo-e inspired art style was something I wasn't sure would work on the scale of a feature length film (though I very much wanted it to) and the very light premise (as described in the trailer) made it seem that much less likely. And while I'm still within the realm of the confessional, I might as well say it; I'm not the biggest fan of Grave of the Fireflies in the world. It's a gorgeous movie with a strong narrative, but it never grabbed me in the way it did so many others I know. It is also the only other Takahata film I have seen; Pom Poko and My Neighbor the Yamadas never crossed my path.

That all said, Princess Kaguya did for me what I suspect Fireflies did for many others. The story was, in fact, spare, and the art style took some acclimating to -- if only to properly read the flow of action, which is a language that Ghibli's usual style doesn't get enough credit for its fluency in (see: Totoro's Catbus for the perfect example) -- but it also happily accounted for this. There isn't much that happens in Princess Kaguya, but the opening sequences are especially slow; a bamboo cutter finds a tiny princess in a stalk, and brings her home, where she turns into a baby. The peasant couple raises the rapidly-growing, heavenly baby as their own, while taking the hint that she is divinely ordained to become a noble in her time on Earth.

As the movie goes on, the couple succeeds at introducing her into high society, and do so well that she ends up with multiple high society suitors. She retains her working class roots, and isn't super pleased about any of this, though she also reacts like a human being; sometimes her only recourse is to do exactly what is expected of her, other times she forgets her principled opposition to the situation and enjoys herself, and she even, occasionally, gets so overwhelmed she just outright bails on the whole deal. She is, just generally, a really great character.

That isn't exactly the sort of thing that sells me on a movie, though. Luckily, Princess Kaguya knows that having really great characters is just a means to the end of doing cool weird formal shit. Or at least that's how I watch things.

Before getting into the heavier stuff, I would like to say that Princess Kaguya's greatest strength is something that I really don't know how to talk about. I would call it pacing, but that is a little too caught up in the language of narrative to be entirely useful. The other way to frame it would be to say that Princess Kaguya has an incredible pedagogical strategy, to which every aspect of the film -- from cinematography to character development to animation -- is yoked without being subservient. So maybe I do know how to say it, but of particular importance is the way in which it unfolds over time. That is a thing for which I have little language, because I never really thought I would need it. Princess Kaguya makes me wish I had more.

The best I can do in terms of talking about the pacing is to point to two specific moments in the film, both of which involve exceptional use of animation.

The first moment comes when Kaguya abandons the pillowed chamber in which she has spent three days as she is being inducted into the nobility. Outside is a party, where people celebrate her being accepted, that she herself cannot attend. Once she is finally fed up, she tears through the silks separating her from the fray, and bolts. She runs from the chamber, out of the house, out of the city, through the fields along the dirt road that brought her to her new life. Eventually she slows, stumbles, but keeps going.*

The animation of Kaguya running is, first and foremost, stunning. It is very much the kind of thing that could be picked out and worked through on its own merits, whether as an argument for the development of a unique artistic style that can respond to the needs of the story or for the simple lesson of how to draw someone running. Placed within its context, however -- from a standpoint of what I'll just decide now to call pacing, even if I mean something closer to pedagogy -- it is even more powerful.

The fact that the movie taught me how to read its non-traditional animation style is important. The referent I had, as I mentioned above, was the ukiyo-e, or woodblock paintings, based on the beginning of the film and its trailer, so more than anything else Princess Kaguya had to teach me how to watch it move. As mentioned above, it does this beautifully, letting the early scenes linger, giving the viewer ample time to learn to see the hinges and then to see past them well enough to forget they are there. This is all craft stemming from creative decisions; or at least it feels that way. Until the running scene.

Replaced in its context, a scene that could have been remarkable for its stunning visuals becomes at once a joyous realization and a cause for reflection. At some point during the sequence, it strikes you that what Princess Kaguya has taught you up to this point isn't the sum of the potentials of its art style, but only what it wanted you to know. But also that it has given you the tools to appreciate what would regardless be a beautiful sequence in a wholly new way. For lack of better terms, Princess Kaguya has paced itself in such a way as to transform what could very well have been a purely aesthetic, if character-grounded, sequence into something that is truly, expressively climactic. Which isn't to say that it is the peak of anything narratively, but instead that it opens a whole new capacity, in just a few short minutes, to appreciate the style of movement -- which is another way of saying animation as such -- that the movie has developed over the course of something like an hour prior to this. It's fucking unbelievable.

Lingering on this moment for just a bit, before moving on to the next; toward the end of the film, there is a similar sequence, in which Kaguya flies around with the country boy with whom she fell in love from her home town after something like a decade and change apart. It is her joyous farewell, to be followed by her mournful one, and it, too, is striking and beautiful. It lacks that epiphanic quality, though -- or did, at least, for me -- that the running sequence had. It is gorgeous in many other ways, not least among them for letting the characters breathe in a way that is both believable and exquisite, but it is also an acknowledgment that the movie has taught us all it has to teach, as viewers, and that all that is left is to provide some closure on the lives that it has portrayed. In this way, if in no other, the flight sequence reminds me more of Grave of the Fireflies than anything else about Princess Kaguya, and I will say again that if that movie is important to you in a way that it isn't to me, then Princess Kaguya is still incredibly worth watching.

The second moment involves Kaguya being fitted for a dress. Or something like that; I can't very well remember the exact scene, or where it fell in the movie. So we'll just assume "fitting sequence" is a fine shorthand, and get on with it, if that sounds okay with everyone (if it doesn't please close the tab and go watch the movie).

The fitting sequence is much more wrapped up in the use of form to communicate things like social consequences and character traits and affect projections than the running sequence was, but it shares with it above all else an epiphanic joy in the possibilities of the art style.

The particular use of animation in the fitting sequence is something I would probably call inversion, even though there is likely a technical term for it. I say this because I don't think that it is some technical innovation, but it is a technique put to good use. And because I frankly don't know shit about how animation works. What this sequence inverts is the general technique used to differentiate the background from the foreground, or to accentuate activity in a form which generally has a very low frame rate as compared to other types of animation. This is done by retracing a background (and, importantly, secondary characters in the scene) more or less as is, in order to draw the eye to the active character despite their low rate of actual change.** One way to think about this might be in terms of the much-mocked sequences in Dragonball Z where, say, Goku is charging a Spirit Bomb. Because the activity of the foregrounded character is reduced, the relative stasis of the whole thing is exemplified.

In the fitting sequence, however, the terms aren't brought closer together, but are swapped; here, the heroine, who takes up (with the inclusion of her dress) a sizeable portion of the frame is retraced with almost no alterations, while the ancillary characters -- those working on the dress, fitting it or whatever -- move busily. It isn't immediately obvious that this is what is happening (or at least it wasn't to me), so there is a slight transformation of how you view the scene over the course of it; Kaguya's stillness goes from ordinary to uncanny in whatever split second you happen to notice that it is movement altogether that has abandoned her.

Among the things that can be extrapolated from this sequence: at the level of character, it shows how disaffected Kaguya once again is with the whole process of abandoning her working class upbringing for the trappings of nobility. While this theme is pushed throughout the film, specifically in Kaguya's arguments with the tutor her parents have hired, this simple act of retracing rather than minimally animating her is a poignant reminder. It helps, too, that her initial reaction to the dresses she will get to wear is so jubilant; once Kaguya's family has relocated the first thing that takes her out of the funk leaving her friends induced was the wardrobe she was presented with. This is shown, of course, through movement; she sprints around and through the dresses, feeling their fabric kinetically. Now that it is no longer a potential, however, she freezes.

This lends itself to the more sociological reading of the consequences of this move: Princess Kaguya, like Grave of the Fireflies, holds its politics more in its premise than in any individual moment, but the freezing of Kaguya here has obvious implications. This isn't an aimless petulance, or even a disaffection based on a lack of knowledge about the world as it is; Kaguya's freezing up (again, very literally in terms of the animation) in the process of being made proper in the terms of the nobility of the time says as much, if not more, than her various vocal refusals (or subversive embraces) of the feminine norms of the period. This is in part because of that dichotomy; Kaguya is established as presenting her resistance in one of two modes, both of which are characterized by enthusiasm. Either she refuses to blacken her teeth because she likes to smile with her mouth open, or she blackens her teeth in the middle of a long sequence of her abiding by the rules so strictly as to read as mocking them. Here, though, her reaction is not expressed through her actions or reactions as they are established by (and establish) her character, but through the very terms on which she exists in the world. If character, as a category, is a way of providing an epistemological frame through which to view the persistence of certain aspects of a narrative through time, then this sequence is nothing less than the claim that that frame bleeds into the ontological.

Another way of saying this is to replace epistemology with content and ontology with form, I suppose. But those terms lack the sense that what is known, and how it is known, is being confronted with what is, and how it is. Because Kaguya is very much just a drawing, but we know her through the way that drawing can be manipulated through time to represent actions which are characterized by consistency and difference. And the point of this knowing is to obscure that being, so that we are not simply sitting in a darkened room watching lines transform in pure abstractions. But with the fitting sequence, that being is represented directly, after the knowing has been well established, both as a reminder that it is real and as a way of enhancing the depth of that knowing. It is frankly fucking incredible.

At a broader level, and in vaguer terms, Princess Kaguya is a movie that works. I worry, here, that my disinclination to talk about things like character or narrative on textual terms might be misinterpreted as a tacitly claiming that they aren't up to snuff, that the only pleasure to be gained from this movie is in seeing it with a particular set of eyes on. And, to be honest, that is often true of how I write about films, because it is how I most enjoy them and how I most enjoy to write about them. But for Princess Kaguya I think it's worth stating that it is maybe the most human, and affecting, film, whether from start to finish or in almost any particular moment, I have seen in a very long time.

*[Trigger Warning] There are certain things about this scene which lend themselves to a reading that seem to lend themselves to reading it as an episode of disassociation during or following a sexual assault or rape; immediately prior the movie shows a drunken reveler demanding to see her, and it is closed by Kaguya waking up with a piece of broken pottery next to her. This is used to signal that the "dream" wasn't entirely, at least, unreal. I really don't have anything to say about that other than it seems fair to warn people and that it is one of the decisions the movie made that I'm less than enthusiastic about.

**From what I understand, Princess Kaguya is actually a digitally animated film, and so the actual technique used is not the same. Its digital animation is, however, meant very clearly to evoke brushes, and to mimic the form of anime. So take the crafty shit as metaphorical.

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