The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a film directed by Isao Takahata in 2013, and it is based on a Japanese folktale called “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” Commenting on the consequences of prioritizing wealth, the film portrays the struggles of a young girl forced to live as a princess and to let go of her personal identity and childhood friends for the sake of what others define as happiness. Although the film focuses on a young woman living in the Heian period of Japanese history, audiences with different backgrounds can still connect with the characters and relate the overall ideas on wealth and nature to their own experiences. Through linework, abstraction of forms, and color, Isao Takahata helps the audience empathize with the character’s emotions and furthers the idea that wealth or status does not lead to happiness. Investigating the use of these elements in the animation is the focus of this post.
In the film, a bamboo cutter finds a tiny girl in a bamboo shoot. Believing that she is a special girl sent from heaven, he takes the girl home to his wife, and they both raise her. She will later be named Princess Kaguya. The rapidly aging girl enjoys her life in the village, surrounded by nature. Meanwhile, the bamboo cutter finds gold and expensive clothes in more bamboo shoots, making him believe that his daughter is meant to be a princess in the capital. To get his daughter the status of a princess, the bamboo cutter buys a palace in the capital and forces his family to relocate there. Princess Kaguya becomes miserable and more apathetic as she learns how to be a proper princess. Although the limited freedom and individual expression make Princess Kaguya miserable, she wants to make her father proud and tries to adjust to his demands. After years of being a princess, she internally cries for help. Hearing this cry, the people of the moon, where the princess is from, take her back. In order to make the emotions and ideas of this story resonate with the audience, Takahata implements various drawing and animation strategies, namely movements in the linework, abstraction of body shapes and actions, and colors in the backgrounds.
One way that Takahata expresses Princess Kaguya’s emotions is through the stillness and motion in the linework. The contrasts between the static and energetic lines accentuate the character’s shifts from lacking emotion to feeling intense fear, sadness, or even happiness. For example, after being reminded of the life she lost at the cherry blossom tree, Princess Kaguya rides the carriage back home. In the carriage, the lines of the drawing of the princess are static (1:15:28 – 1:16:00). The still lines highlight the character’s apathy and exhaustion from the noble life she is forced to live. However, she soon sees Sutemaru, her childhood friend, and starts crying because she does not know what to do (1:16:25 – 1:16:49). Here, although Princess Kaguya is not drastically moving, the lines jitter. The sudden motion in the lines, despite the lack of action, helps visualize internal feelings and creates a sense of emotional build-up that the audience can connect to. Moreover, the motion has a significant role in the audience’s emotional response. In a study on the effects of visual motion on an emotional response, researchers from communication and psychology at the University of Delaware found that motion played a significant role in the viewer’s energy levels and made the viewer feel a stronger negative or positive emotional response to negative or positive images (Detenber et al.). Similarly, Takahata’s use of still and energetic lines impacts the audience’s energy levels and emotional responses in a way that reflects how the character feels, allowing the audience to empathize with Princess Kaguya.
Additionally, the abstraction of body forms and movements emphasizes Princess Kaguya’s intense emotions and evokes empathy. Movement not only enhances emotion but may also play a significant role in emotion recognition. A recent study on emotional recognition through movement, developed in collaboration between researchers from the University of Haifa and the University of Illinois, found that body movements, without the addition of facial expressions, can be recognized as expressing emotion (Melzer et al.). This provides insight into the way an audience might recognize emotion through movement in animation. Through the abstract representation of body forms and movements, artists can exaggerate the gestures and heighten the emotion of the scene. In Takahata’s film, the visual representation of the princess or environment becomes more abstract and gestural while she experiences intense emotions. For example, when the men at the naming ceremony talk about what the princess might look like and about taking a peek at her, Princess Kaguya runs away out of fear, frustration, and sadness (51:50 – 52:52). In this scene, the style of the art becomes more abstract and gestural. As the princess runs in the field and forest, she is expressed in fewer lines than before that capture the overall gesture of her actions and emotions (see fig. 1 and fig. 2).
This simplification of physical forms and exaggeration of movements emphasize the character’s emotions. Even though her facial expressions are not visible for a significant portion of the running sequence the emphasis on her body movements, such as looking down or tripping and using her hands to keep running, allows the audience to recognize her desperation and connect with her.
The colors of the backgrounds help express the importance of relationships and nature over wealth and status. Colors often have both positive and negative associations, and the meaning can change depending on the implementation. For example, in Japanese culture, shades of gray can be positively associated with intelligence or maturity and negatively associated with something sad or boring (Watson-Roberts). In the film, Takahata uses both positive and negative associations of color to further express the idea that nature leads to happiness while materialism is destructive. When grays or desaturated colors dominate the background, it is more positive in the village and negative in the capital. For example, when Princess Kaguya plays in the rain and then learns weaving from her mother (19:31 – 19:43) or when she goes back to her village after running from the naming ceremony (53:50 – 56:04), the backgrounds are mostly light grays and desaturated colors. The grays here stress the wisdom of nature and the people teaching the princess more about life. In contrast, when the princess gets her make-up done (57:20 – 58:30), or when Sutemaru is beaten for stealing a chicken (1:17:22 – 1:17:42), darker gray backgrounds elicit apathy, sadness, or loss. Utilizing both color associations aids the audience’s comparison of nature and the capital. These implementations of color reflect the idea that prioritizing nature and connection to others has positive influences on personal growth while seeking wealth and power has a negative impact on life.
As demonstrated above, Takahata allows for emotional connection to the characters and conveys the importance of nature through linework, abstraction, and color. The techniques employed in this film showcase the impact animation can have on storytelling and emotional connections to art. Moreover, Takahata illustrates the importance of connecting with the world through strong relationships or experiences with nature in general, and a close look at the film can provide insight into the ways people understand and connect with the life around them.
Detenber, Benjamin H., et al. “Roll ’Em!: The Effects of Picture Motion on Emotional
Responses.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, vol. 42, no. 1, 1998, pp. 113–27, https://doi.org/10.1080/08838159809364437.
Melzer, Ayelet, et al. “How Do We Recognize Emotion From Movement? Specific Motor
Components Contribute to the Recognition of Each Emotion.” Frontiers in Psychology,
vol. 10, 2019, pp. 1389–1389.
Watson-Roberts, Kalina. “Japanese Colour Meanings.” Kalis Krystals, 19 Nov. 2012,
Eesha Muddasani is a student at the University of Texas at Dallas pursuing a dual degree in Computer Science and Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communications. She plans to focus on animation, but she enjoys learning and experimenting with different mediums and techniques.