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TCM Imports - May 2019
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Princess from the Moon

A major prestige release from Toho in 1987, Taketori monogatari, translated as Princess from the Moon, arrived exactly forty years into the career of lauded director Kon Ichikawa. One of Japanese cinema's leading lights during the 20th century, the Tokyo-born filmmaker and onetime animator had burst onto the international scene with such landmark films as Tokyo Olympiad (1965), The Burmese Harp (1956), Fires on the Plain (1959), and An Actor's Revenge (1963). His longtime fascination with animation, folklore and fairy tales bore fruit with this late period fantasy film, based on a 9th-century Japanese legend known as "The Story of the Bamboo Cutter." This marked the fourth and most elaborate version of the tale, following a 1935 feature, Kaguya hime, and a pair of short films, Kagee eiga: Kaguya hime (1942) and Taketori monogatari (1961). A well-received animated feature version, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, was also released in 2013.

As the title indicates, the fanciful narrative revolves around a young woman from the moon, Kaya (Yasuko Sawaguchi), who finds herself stranded on Earth where she encounters bamboo cutter Taketori-no-Miyatsuko (ToshirĂ´ Mifune) and his wife, Tayoshime (Ayako Wakao), who have lost their young daughter. At first, Kaya appears in a golden cradle as a baby but grows into a magnetic princess who entrances any man she encounters, with her de facto father figure going to increasingly extreme measures to keep her protected as three suitors present themselves.

As befitting an Ichikawa production of this scale, Toho spared no expense recruiting the highest pedigree talent for this film including costume designer Emi Wada, who had recently won an Academy Award for Ran (1985), regular Ichikawa cinematographer Setsuo Kobayashi, and delicate special effects (in his final film) by Godzilla veteran Teruyoshi Nakano, ranging from the convincing miniature bamboo forest to the climactic spacecraft reminiscent of recent American science-fiction hits.

Toho's confidence in the film extended to its domestic release as the studio's flagship title for its 50th anniversary and its choice as the opening night film for the Tokyo International Film Festival. Though it did not enjoy the enthusiasm of Ichikawa's preceding color remake of his own The Burmese Harp (1985), the film was a box office success and was targeted for Western audiences right down to the selection of a closing titles song performed by Peter Cetera, "Stay with Me." The film premiered in the United States at the Museum of Modern Art in September of 1987, coinciding with the bestowing of over 50 Japanese films to the museum's archives by Toho. Mifune traveled to the U.S. to attend and did his part to promote the film, though it ultimately received little play and has been extremely difficult to see in an English-friendly edition ever since. Nevertheless, critical notices were positive with Variety noting it "opens like an art film and closes like a science fiction extravaganza. In between there is an extraordinary display of costuming, with seemingly enough flowing kimono cloth to stretch from Times Square to Tokyo." The presence of Mifune was also a major selling point due to this prominence as the most familiar Japanese actor in the West, largely due to his extensive string of starring roles for Akira Kurosawa including Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961). Incredibly, this marked the only time Mifune and Ichikawa ever collaborated throughout the course of their careers.

By Nathaniel Thompson

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