Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

03 January 2015

Morality Tales - Japanese and USAmerican

Takahata Isao's The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is, in many ways, a ghost story: the transliteration of the Japanese title, かぐや姫の物語, is Kaguya-hime no Monogatari. In many old Japanese movies that made it to U.S. release, this word monogatari (物語) is featured. It means tale or story or legend, and it comprises the tale/story part of the titles of Mizoguchi's Tales of Ugetsu, Ozu's Tokyo Story, and Misumi's The Tale of Zatoichi. These tales are not necessarily ghost stories, but they are always moral tales, and I had not really remembered that when I went in to see Princess Kaguya. (Frankly, I was just excited to see that it was playing anywhere within an hour of where I live; I drove 60 minutes.)

The moral tale that Princess Kaguya is telling is a tale for adults. This is, in many ways, a film for parents – admonishing them (us) to take care that we do not pressure our children to be something that they do not wish to be. Attempting to transform them into what we think they ought to be only causes heartache and misery, and our children may miss out on happiness altogether.

In Princess Kaguya, a poor, childless bamboo cutter discovers a tiny princess in the forest. He takes her home, where she transforms into a baby. The woodcutter and his wife raise the child as their own. (All children are a gift, the moral says, both the ones that are given to us and the ones that we think we created ourselves.)

The child is happy, learns quickly, grows quickly, but is a little off. The woodcutter decides that she is really a princess and that she ought to be taken to the capital, where she can learn how to be a proper princess. He executes this plan, but of course the girl hates it in the city, away from the bamboo and the wild pigs and the water and wind.

I don't want to say much more about the movie vis-à-vis its plot, but I will say that the movie underlines several other moral lessons. In Kaguya, what is of value are the things we have in our lives – the things we can share with one another or give to those we love – not fantasies about imaginary jewels or magic amulets. Dreams and fantasies are not worth much in this movie, but pheasant stew and mushrooms and fun with friends are worth a great deal.

And the film asks parents to spend time with their children and learn what they want from the world – learn what happiness looks like to them – instead of deciding what happiness ought to look like. (Kaguya literalizes this moral several times.) Life is very short, Kaguya says, and at any time our children, our friends, our money can be taken away from us. We must treasure what we have while we have it.

My gloss of the film makes it seem much more heavy handed than it is. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya isn't quite as on the nose as my description makes it out to be. Its moral lessons are subtle, its animation is beautiful, and I quite liked the film.  
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But I had the same problem with The Princess Kaguya that I had with Richard Linklater's Boyhood. These are films about parenting: about watching a child grow up and understanding life in new ways by watching a child become someone we didn't originally envision, a person wholly his or her own. But, as Richard Linklater does with Boyhood, Takahata decides to tell his film from the perspective of the child rather than the perspective of the adults. For me, the journey of the child is not that interesting. In fact, it's predictable, even generic. The kids in both films almost always do what is expected of them. They watch their parents in predictable ways, they approach their friends in exactly the ways I expect them to.

Now, these are both films by adults, so while they purport to be giving us the perspective of a child, a way of looking at the world that is new and exciting and fresh and whatever, this isn't true. Both Takahata and Linklater see the world of the child in generic ways, in ways that idealize the experience of a child: the child wishes his parents would stay together and is terrified when they fight, the child wishes to live in the forest with her friends, the child idolizes his father, the child doesn't want to be a lady, she wants to be a tomboy, the child wants to learn to express himself, the child falls in love with the first boy that she meets, the child finds himself inexplicably and unanalytically jealous of his mother's boyfriend.

But although these films tell their stories from the perspective of the child, these are actually just more parental perspectives, covert parental perspectives disguised as children's perspectives. Both Boyhood and Kaguya reenact the failings the adults in their films commit – they are finally more interested in themselves and their own experience of watching the child, of living vicariously through the child, than they are in understanding the child him- or herself.

My big problem with Boyhood is that it is a movie about parenting that continually pretends it is a movie about growing up. It isn't just that I am way more interested in exploring the world of parenting than I am in attempting to relive the experience of growing up (although this is true), it is that so is Richard Linklater. For my money, if both Linklater and Takahata admitted from the start that their movies were about the experience of the parent watching the child grow up, I would have been much more interested in their movies. As it is, both movies are fine, but both simply recreate a nostalgic experience of childhood felt by someone who can't remember any more what being a child was actually like.