In Hollywood, animated films are lumped together under the genre animation and don’t fall under genres of the same thematic concern. At first glance this makes sense, as animated films have a different production process from live-action movies. However, on a practical level it becomes unwieldy when, for instance, people are asked to vote for the best animated feature. Some vote highly based on craft—that is, how the animation fits into the story or makes it more engaging—while others vote based on how suitable the film is for children—essentially how comedic it is or if there is a moral lesson in the end. Whether or not one votes or cares about accolades, the ambiguity created by popular awarding bodies makes it difficult for many people to see animation as a formal choice and its potential in more effective visual storytelling. And that is a waste, since animation is a way for artists to express themselves, develop characters, and tell stories.
That only three animated movies have been nominated for Best Picture in the Academy Awards signifies how these are deemed second-rate compared to live-action movies; some people do think that films for children have less import. And believing that animated films are for kids encourages box office filmmakers to produce them for kids. Generally, these movies may have themes that will strike chords in adults, but they are still crafted in a way that still targets children with their goofy humor. Consider Up (2009), with its themes of aging, of life getting in the way of one’s dreams. It’s still rendered as a comedy and a movie for children with scenes that poke fun at Carl Fredricksen and Russell.
Beyond Hollywood, though, animation is thought to be a medium of visual storytelling, and not necessarily a format for kids.
Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)—which is about a girl that sprung up from a bamboo tree and was adopted by a bamboo cutter, who thought she was a gift from the gods—has a calligraphic approach with its charcoal lines, watercolor effect, and edges that fade to white. The look makes us recall Chinese paintings of yore, those brushed, black images on a scroll. As The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a retelling of Japanese folklore, the art suits and supports the story and enhances the viewing experience. It’s as if we are beholding the story from age-old paintings, so we are braced to accept the presence of supernatural beings which are often part of such tales.
Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya follows the philosophy of ink wash painting: to not only capture the appearance of the subject onto the paper, but also his spirit or essence. We see this in Takahata’s portrayal of peasantry and nobility, and in his rendering of some of the most stirring scenes in the film.
The pastoral scenes have soft lines and muted hues, evoking the gentleness and simplicity of rural Japan. The palatial scenes, on the other hand, have bolder colors, insinuating indulgence. As Princess Kaguya is happy only in the pastoral life, we can literally see that she delights and feels free in simplicity, hard labor, and being with friends and family. The weight of immaterial pleasures over material wealth then easily becomes one of the film’s themes.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya’s calligraphic style exudes various emotions, hence allowing us to feel what Princess Kaguya feels. During the celebration of her naming, she overhears a group of drunk men talk about wanting to see her, and they mock her father for paying to have a commoner turned into a princess. Princess Kaguya’s indignation builds up, and culminates into a sob. And as she takes a breath, the frame pulls back so we get a shrinking image of Princess Kaguya surrounded by darkness. We then have a sense of her feeling constricted and trapped as she realizes her isolation from her loved ones and the loss of the happy, simple life she had.
The most striking scene in the film features Princess Kaguya bolting out of the palace, fleeing for her freedom. Takahata drops his use of carefully drawn charcoal lines and opts for spontaneous brush strokes. The rush of heavy and violent strokes as she runs, punctuated by the sound of tense strings and the crash of the keys, lets us witness Princess Kaguya’s frustration, despair, and sense of urgency.
Similar to how the pastoral and imperial scenes are differentiated, the choice of colors makes the final act of The Tale of Princess Kaguya powerful and much more meaningful. It helps deliver another theme: the beauty of life in spite of pain and suffering.
It’s a tearful moment when Princess Kaguya has to return to the gods, be taken away from her family, and forget everything about Earth. The deities who come for her walk on immaculately white clouds, and they are colored brightly with gentle hues. They seem attractive, but the dominating mint greens and bold pinks give them an acerbic quality, hinting that their world, which is clean and without sorrow—a much better world than ours, so to say—is dull, if not harsh and bitter.
On the other hand, life on Earth is all charcoal. The art works on a literal level since the scene takes place at night. But it works on a metaphorical level as well. The slovenliness suggests that life on Earth means experiencing loss, grief, sadness, and regret. Our world can be an ugly place: People become greedy, and we can lose our closeness to a loved one because of greed; as we simply go about our lives, we also lose friends and freedoms, and so much more. Yet Princess Kaguya refuses to leave this dark Earth—and her parents—behind. Thinking of nature and her loved ones, she asserts that Earth is full of wonder and beauty. That act, amid a bleak world and having been burdened and suffocated by her father’s wishes, shows Princess Kaguya’s earnestness and certainty, as she is at her lowest point and has long been away from many of her objects of happiness. Her desire to stay in the gloom with her parents when light is before her and calling her helps us consider that there is something left to love in the world with all its pain. It’s a powerful message meticulously packaged and delivered to us.
With its aesthetic choices, The Tale of Princess Kaguya shows that animation is a medium, visual language, or mode of expression for motion picture—and an effective one at that. And as a medium, animation can be used to build on the theme of the story, heighten the emotion of a scene or character, and emphasize the gravity of a character’s desires and choices. As an entire world and a cast are created from scratch for the story for an animated film, the possibilities of animation are worth exploring for a more meaningful and complex viewing experience. There might be disadvantages to employing animation, just as any medium does, but when the thoughtfully crafted images fit into the story and run well with the music, we experience a masterpiece.
“Chinese Painting,” Maxwell Hearn. The Met Museum. June 2008.
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