Saturday, 29 March 2014

Princess from the Moon

Director: Kon Ichikawa
Writers: Shinya Hidaka, Mitsutoshi Ishigami, Ryuzo Kikushima
Producers: Hiroaki Fujii, Masaru Kakatani, Junichi Shinsaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Katsuo Nakamura
Year of release: 1987
Country: Japan
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Artsmagic)

In feudal Japan, poor bamboo weaver Taketori-no-Miyatsuko and his wife mourn the death (from illness) of their young daughter Kaya. One night, there is a massive light from the bamboo forest behind their house, and when Miyatsuko investigates he comes across a strange metal capsule, half-buried in the ground next to his daughter’s grave. A mysterious light flows between the two, then the capsule opens and out crawls a baby which grows, before his astonished eyes, into a little girl who is the double of Kaya.

Miyatsuko takes the girl home, where his overjoyed wife sees her as a gift from Heaven to replace their daughter. Meanwhile, other locals have discovered a huge, smoking pit in the middle of the forest. Miyatsuko sells a piece of the capsule and discovers that it is pure gold; shortly afterwards he and his wife return home to find that Kaya has grown into an elegant young woman.

Suddenly wealthy, the couple move from their shack to a huge house in the rich part of town, where all the men are bewitched by Kaya’s ethereal beauty. But the local Shogun hears tell of gold being traded in town and wonders where it has come from.

Kaya receives proposals of marriage from three suitors: two slimy old guys and a sincere young councillor. On the advice of a blind friend she sends the three men on impossible tasks. The two slimeballs apparently succeed but are shown to have cheated, while the youngest man, barely surviving his fruitless attempt, proves that his love for Kaya (or Kaguya as she has become known - meaning ‘shining lady’) is true.

But by this point, Kaya/Kaguya’s true origin has been discovered: she came from the Moon and must return at the next full moon. Squads of soldiers are posted around the family’s house but Kaguya is taken anyway, in a shaft of light, leaving behind her adopted parents, her blind friend and her suitor.

Princess from the Moon (Taketori Monogatari) looks fabulous, a terrific recreation of feudal Japan with amazing costumes (by Emi Wada: Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams) and great sets (by Shinobu Muraki: Ran and - blimey! - ESPY). Unfortunately it’s also very, very long and very, very slow. The Mona Lisa looks fabulous too - but you wouldn’t want to stare at it for 122 minutes. The great Toshira Mifune - looking a lot older than he did in Yojimbo! - is good as Miyatsuko, as are the rest of the cast. Miho Nakano, the girl who plays young Kaya - blank expression, pale blue contact lenses and all - is undoubtedly the creepiest child actor you’ll ever see. Adult Kaya/Kaguya is played by Yasuko Sawaguchi (Godzilla 1985, Godzilla Vs Biollante, Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon).

There is one very brief sword-fight (not involving Mifune) and a fantastic giant sea-serpent which appears far too briefly - allegedly left over from the unmade Toho/Hammer co-production Nessie - but little else to get excited about for the first 100 minutes. (Special effects are by Teruyoshi Nakano, his last credit after a career at Toho which started with The Secret of the Telegian in 1960 and took in pretty much every SF, horror or monster movie after that, including Lake of Dracula, Evil of Dracula and 13 Godzilla films.) Princess from the Moon is a fairy tale, but is unfortunately presented as a soap opera with endless scenes of people talking - often in locked-off longshots which make it hard to tell, on the small screen, who is speaking at any given point.

Then in the last 20 minutes it turns into a full-blown special effects fantasia, with an alien spaceship straight out of Close Encounters accompanied by a faux John Williams score that also hints at Also Sprach Zarathustra! It’s a complete change (though still, it must be said, not terribly exciting) which sits oddly with all that has gone before. But there just seems to be no moral; there’s no sense of Kaya, in her short time on Earth, teaching people anything or learning anything about humanity. A fairy tale (a very long one) without a clear moral seems somewhat pointless, however beautifully designed and shot.

Also be warned that the end credits play under an unspeakably dire ballad (in English) by Peter Cetera.

Artsmagic’s anamorphic widescreen presentation, on their Shadow Warrior label, is a typically flawless transfer. Although there is a cast list - and biographical notes on Ichikawa (Seishun Kaidan, 47 Ronin etc) and Mifune (The Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress etc) - the disc lacks the cast portraits seen on some of the label’s other films, which is annoying as many of the characters are never actually named in the dialogue, rendering the cast list somewhat superfluous.

MJS rating: B-

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