- Ravi Swami
"Princess From The Moon", Dir: Kon Ichikawa, 1987
Kon Ichikawa came to my attention following my usual random search for films on the various streaming services - in this case, Criterion Channel - and I watched his charming film about child-rearing by an inexperienced young couple in post-war Japan entitled "Being Two Isn't Easy" .
Following some further research into Ichikawa's work I came across his 1987 film "Princess From The Moon", attracted in large part by the poster art that appeared to show the titular princess and a large "Close Encounters of The Third Kind" UFO, and I was immediately curious to know more. especially since I wasn't aware at that point if it was included in the Criterion line-up of Ishikawa's films.
I was even more pleased to note that it *is* included and so the film became my second introduction to the director's work.
The plot of the film is based on "The Tale of The Bamboo Cutter", a widely-known and popular tale purportedly based on real events that occurred in 10th Century Japan and that was later adapted as an "anime" entitled "The Tale of Princess Kaguya" by Studio Ghibli.
Opinions vary on both the provenance and details of the original and here Ichikawa chooses to craft a tale ostensibly set in Medieval Japan but that reinterprets the story for an audience already attuned to ideas around UFO's, specifically in the wake of Steven Spielberg's 1977 "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" and also a due to a wave of interest in the subject that spawned the long-running Japanese magazine "MU" (an acronym for "Mysterious Universe" but that also refers to the supposed lost civilisation of "Mu") in the early 80's and that was in part inspired by the work of Erich Von Daniken in the previous decade.
Many of these ideas have filtered down into "Showa" era fantasy films and it's worth noting that a chance copy of "Mu" via a producer in search of a collaboration with an animation studio piqued the interest of Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli enough to incorporate certain elements into his 1986 anime "Castle In The Sky" - a fact verified in Miyazaki's autobiography.
The plot details do not vary a great deal from the source - a humble woodcutter (Toshiro Mifune) and his wife live on the edge of a bamboo forest that supplies the materials for the bamboo wares that he sells for a pittance. The couple are grieving for their daughter who has died while still an infant for reasons that are never explained.
One day a violent explosion rocks their cottage and the woodcutter goes to investigate after he sees an intense orange glow emanating above the hill that he frequents for his bamboo supplies. On reaching the spot he discovers a strange glowing container - in the original story the glow is coming from within a bamboo stalk - which cracks open to reveal a tiny child.
Mystified rather than in terror, he watches as the child exits the container and begins to grow at an unnatural rate until it is revealed to be a young girl of the same age as his late daughter, but who has unearthly blue eyes and is holding a spherical crystal ball.
He returns to his wife with the child and the remains of the container she arrived in and his wife is overjoyed to see her, believing her to be a replacement for their daughter. They name the child "Kaguya" and she grows into a stunningly beautiful, if rather unearthly, young woman who soon attracts the attention of various noblemen who have been appointed to investigate the mysterious explosion.
As Kaguya grows up she soon begins to question her origins and the answer is provided by the mysterious crystal ball that never leaves her side. On one night the ball begins to emit an intense glow, and curious, Kaguya picks it up and realises that it is trying to communicate with her in a language that only she is able to understand and it tells her that her true home is the Moon.
Three noblemen vie for her affections and hand in marriage but Kaguya shows no interest apart from for one, guided by a blind girl "Akeno" who senses that she is not normal. Kaguya sets the three men impossible tasks to win her hand that involve travelling to distant countries to retrieve various treasures and when two return with treasures that turn out to be fakes, she is heartbroken to discover that her favoured nobleman has been lost at sea and is presumed dead.
Kaguya decides that she must return to the Moon, resigned to the fact that she can never live with her adoptive parents and the people of Earth even though she has grown fond of them and now that her chances of finding true love have been cruelly dashed.
By chance the nobleman who was presumed dead returns and he is immediately set upon by assassins sent by the Emperor who himself has become infatuated with Kaguya but is sceptical of the story being circulated that she is not of this Earth. The nobleman successfully fights off the assassins and returns to claim Kaguya's hand, only to discover her determination to return to the Moon.
Kaguya's adoptive mother decides to throw her crystal ball into the river in order to foil her plan since she is afraid of losing her, but this has disastrous consequences on Kaguya, who is suddenly struck down as if by a mystery illness. The nobleman decides that she must have the crystal ball and he dives into the river where he finds it and then returns it to Kaguya.
At the appointed hour of a full moon, the Emperor orders his army to repel any attempts by the inhabitants of the Moon to take Kaguya, without really having any idea what form this will take.
The film reaches its climax when an enormous glowing spacecraft arrives above the home of the woodcutter and his wife (who had become wealthy as a result of the container that Kaguya arrived being made of solid gold) and then "beams up" Kaguya as the dumbfounded army, nobleman, her parents and the Emperor watch, before the ship sails off toward the Moon.
There's a lot to like in this film and a few genuinely chilling sequences, such as the moment where it dawns on Kaguya (Yasuke Sawaguchi) that she is not of this Earth, with a pitch-perfect performance, and some excellent visual effects work such as an attack on a nobleman's ship by a sea serpent and the enormous "spaceship" from the Moon that both references and equals the work done on "CE3K" besides having a whimsical design inspired by a lotus.
Many of the ideas reflected in the film are of perennial interest even if the film is very much of it's time in purely visual and creative terms, right down to the song that underscores the closing credits sequence by the 80's pop singer Peter Cetera, and Ichikawa spares no detail in presenting it in the best standards of the time such that it holds up very well in comparison to many contemporary films that feature visual effects, coupled with the skills of artists and technicians well versed in depicting medieval Japan in film.
"Princess From The Moon", Dir: Kon Ichikawa, Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka, Toho, 1987
Ravi Swami June 2022