The Gospel of the Princess Kaguya

“The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” one of Japan’s oldest folk stories, has long been a favorite of mine. Last night, I watched an adaptation by Studio Ghibli, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), which I heartily recommend. The animation was hand-drawn over eight years, and it may be the last film ever directed by now-octogenarian and acclaimed Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata. In addition to the quality of the animation and storytelling, the myth itself is full of the “glorious sadness” of paganism, the mixture of beauty and fatalism that flavors all the best stories of the pre-Christian world.

Here is the story, in brief summary. A poor bamboo cutter finds a tiny, luminous baby girl in a bamboo grove. He raises her, and she grows supernaturally quickly into a young woman. Meanwhile, the bamboo cutter receives gifts of gold in the bamboo he cuts and is soon very wealthy. He purchases a magnificent house, and his foster-daughter, Princess Kaguya, is renowned for her beauty and grace. She acquires many suitors, but sets them on impossible tasks. Even the Emperor takes an interest in her, and she rebuffs him. In time, she reveals that she comes from the moon, and she must return to her people imminently. Despite the efforts of her foster family and the Emperor himself, the semi-divine moon people come and carry her back off to heaven.

The original narrative has a further subplot involving the Emperor which does not make it into the movie (the reason for which will become clear later in this review). After Kaguya refuses to marry the Emperor, they become correspondents and friends. When the moon-people fetch her, they give her a drink from the Elixir of Life. She is not allowed to give this to her elderly father, but she can and does send a phial to the Emperor. The Emperor, in mourning at having lost her forever, burns the elixir on Mount Fuji.

As I have lately been studying principles of Christian response to nature-myth (e.g., here), I wish to discuss The Tale of the Princess Kaguya as a truth-telling story that points to fulfillment in Christ. By this I do not mean that there is a Christian message coded into the film, or that we can turn the story into a Christian morality tale; but I do mean that its truthfulness about reality necessarily results in a hidden meaning that may be illuminated by the work of Christ.

First, we must look at the structure and immediate significance of the original tale. We have some common mythological tropes: a poor couple, a divine visitor, heavenly blessing, impossible tasks, and a magical elixir. But unlike western stories in this mold, the heart of the Kaguya myth is not anchored to such virtues as hospitality or courage or persistence. The familial love of the bamboo cutter and his wife turns ultimately to grief, no suitor is capable of the required feats, and the elixir is refused. The myth ends in cosmic tragedy, an inevitable, violent wrenching apart of heaven and earth. On its most apparent level, it is a caution about the nature of reality, the chasm between human and divine life.

For the princess embodies an unsustainable paradox. She dwells for a time between two worlds, one mortal and one immortal, one bound to the sorrows of matter and one enlightened and free. Yet the contradiction cannot last; her true nature is of heaven, and so she must return there. The cosmic hierarchy, the necessary order of things, is upheld when she returns to the moon.

The film expands this dichotomy to distinguish life in the capital city from life in Kaguya’s agricultural village. Thus, in the adaptation, Kaguya passes through three contrasting spheres: the country, the city, and the moon. Her relationship to each of these worlds points to the meaning of the narrative as a whole.

The country is idealized as a place for free expression of the whole range and depth of human feelings. The country-folk are poor and sometimes hungry, but their necessary participation in the rhythms of nature is presented as something ennobling rather than a bondage. They receive good and bad alike from the hand of nature, but in embracing all nature’s gifts, their existence is full and ultimately happy. The film and its protagonist unambiguously favor this world.

In contrast, the capital is revealed as something of a no-place, insulated from the cycles of earth with pretensions to heaven’s immutability. Nevertheless, the aristocracy’s fine manners are manipulative, their language one of violence and possession. Kaguya repeatedly refuses to play their games, but she does make some concessions. She reluctantly takes on the culture and manners of the elite, keeping sane by cultivating a bit of garden in miniature of her lost country life. She sends her suitors on impossible missions rather than openly refuse them. Two try to deceive her with counterfeits, one turns coward, and a fourth, who seems most noble and earnest, is unmasked as a lying seducer. When one dies in his foolish quest, the pointlessness and brutality of the system strikes Kaguya anew. She sinks into depression over how false everything is.

However, the falsity of the court is a kind of parody of the genuine celestial hierarchy. Godlike beings dwell in the sphere of the moon, immortal and unsorrowing, possessed of strange and wonderful powers. They are enlightened, above human knowledge and understanding and (for the most part) indifferent to the earth, which they regard as tainted by grief and mortal attachments. This is Kaguya’s origin and true home.

The conflict between these worlds and their respective claims on Kaguya is illustrated in a particular scene near the middle of the film. Kaguya is at a lavish banquet thrown for her coming of age, where she overhears drunken guests speaking abusively about her. Stricken, she flees the house and the capital. In a dreamlike sequence, she is transfigured, her finery falling away as she races under the moon. She reaches her beloved village, only to discover the site torn down and abandoned, the trees all bare. A charcoal-burner explains to her that the thinned local forests need ten years to recover, and meanwhile, the villagers have gone elsewhere for wood. Kaguya also learns from him that winter is not permanent and spring returns, the first she hears of the seasonal rhythm, for this is still her first year on earth. She wanders off into the snow, and the white landscape awakens memories of her home on the moon. Collapsing in exhaustion, she is magically transported back to the banquet, and thereafter is compliant in her courtly education.

In this scene, Kaguya’s awareness grows in all three spheres. The court to which her guardians have led her is unmasked in its ugliness, and the note of non-belonging intensifies unbearably. As she flees to the country, where she once felt at home, the moon hangs full and impossibly tremendous just over the horizon; Kaguya, in her alienation, has unconsciously begun to realize her true heritage. Yet her encounter in the country also gives her a fundamental insight into mortal existence, the natural cycles of life and death that govern the world, the sorrow that accompanies happiness. The three worlds now lie before her, and compete for her affections for the rest of the film. In the capital, she seeks to avoid anything that would bind her or hold her down (such as marriage). She enjoys a brief moment of fantasy with her childhood peasant friend. But the rights of the moon in her case are never ultimately in doubt; the conclusion is fated, written in stone.

Film-Kaguya’s attempt to transcend the aristocracy’s power-games is, interestingly enough, what sends her back to the moon—her frightened rebuff of the emperor and inward cry for escape, symbolic of her rejection of human civilization and its oppression, is what brings the moon-people to take her home. The city, in trying to imitate heaven, has created a space totally inhospitable to the divine.

Thus, the core of the story is the heaven-earth dichotomy, their utter incompatibility. This is manifoldly obvious in the original myth, which had distinct religious and philosophical undertones. The heavenly guest may visit, but not stay, and no mortal can enter heaven (not as a mortal—an enlightened and detached soul, perhaps). The earthly court does mount up toward heaven to a certain degree—the noble Emperor is alone offered the elixir of life—but it cannot touch the infinite. The Emperor, having lost a celestial love that could never be his, burns the elixir and rejects perpetual endurance.

But there is a modern sensibility infused into the film that fundamentally changes the meaning of the story, and it appears most visibly in the way it problematizes the patriarchy. Kaguya comes to see that she is a mere object to the aristocracy and to her suitors, albeit a desirable one, and engages in a struggle for autonomy. She comes to prefer the egalitarian poverty and simplicity of life in the country, as mentioned. The film thus introduces an element of criticism of the ancient sociopolitical hierarchy, whereas in the original story the emperor, too, is accorded noble and tragic status. In the film, Kaguya’s great friend is not the emperor (who appears effeminate and selfish, objectifying her as much as anyone), but a peasant boy with whom she grew up.

Less obvious but even more subversive is The Tale of the Princess Kaguya‘s emphasis on the goodness of nature. Kaguya in the original myth is unambiguously “fallen,” and her acquisition of mortal attachments is part of her punishment. This tragedy in the Buddhist mold is that a soul belonging to blissful eternity, when bound into matter, forms attachments that lead to suffering. Eternity is where true value and meaning lies; on this side of the “divide” is only illusion we must flee.

The film repudiates this whole worldview and turns it on his head, and interviews with director Takahata infer that this was very much his intention. The film suggests that the transcendent bliss of the moon, bloodless and sanitized (and featuring the Amida-Buddha), is not actually that desirable compared with the tragicomedy of mortal life. The sorrow of the final parting is not merely because earth is losing a goddess, or because Kaguya and her foster family love one another, or because Kaguya has formed attachments unsuitable to her divinity. Takahata’s Kaguya is genuinely distressed at leaving earth itself, and insists to her own people that there is something of positive worth in the mortal circles.

By shifting the “center of tragedy” toward heaven, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya inverts the hierarchy of heaven and earth. It proposes that there is great value in the life-death cycle and the passions it generates, happiness that cannot be found either in the social machine of civilization or in the detachment and transcendence of enlightenment. It calls us to remain close to nature. Nevertheless, the film makes no attempt to palliate the dichotomy between eternity and time at the heart of the fairy tale; like other great myths, it warns against reaching for apotheosis. The film argues even for contentment. And it does so by insisting on the goodness of what we in the theistic traditions would call creation.

Thus the old view (favoring eternity) and the new view (favoring mutable nature) converge on this story, each using the tragic contours of the Kaguya myth as a vehicle for meditation on the nature of reality and human experience. Despite the inversion of values, the film avoids self-congratulatory modern moralism, for behind the narrative remains an acknowledgment of certain truths about the human creature’s place in the universe, our subjection to nature and attachment and all the suffering that comes with it. Whether we should rejoice in this or seek to escape it, we are by nature far removed from divine life; our humanity puts up barriers between us and eternity, and we are constantly in danger of forgetting this.

So the civilized hierarchy reaches up and apes heaven, but it falls infinitely short (the original) or becomes corrupt and self-deceived (the film). The princess reaches down but can only be a visitor on a short-term visa; there is nothing to secure her to the mortal essence. However, the film’s simultaneous affirmation of nature over eternity and the ancient mystery of personhood hints at a new sensibility. The happy scenario lost to Kaguya is full incarnation, full participation in human life and death.

To the Christian, this implies Christ. To be sure, the film stops well short of the radical Christian vision of a union of heaven and earth, the convergence of time and eternity. Because it still admits the dichotomy, it can only uplift one at the expense of the other. The gulf remains unbridged. But Christianity both confesses the incredible natural distance between God and man, and asserts that it has been spanned, in the incarnation of the Son. There is no longer any need to affirm time at the expense of the eternal or vice versa; all the goodness and beauty of the created order is forever reconciled with infinite, transcendent truth.

In The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, nature appears in all its beauty and delicacy. The film seeks to turn our gaze away from the celestial lights and back to the ground beneath our feet, the flowers and trees and the songs of birds, friends and loved ones rather than mystical escape or materialistic comforts. This is our world, and we belong in it, participating in its joys and sorrows. Meaning is here in front of us. This is a powerful message, and one that, I think, only grows stronger when illumined by the Christian sacramental vision: the forms of eternity do not belong to some remote mode of abstraction but inhere in all earthly things. All things flow ever forth from the inexhaustible mind of God. The continuity of heaven and earth most perfectly expressed in the incarnation of Christ imparts sanctity to nature, such that we do not find eternity by escaping from it, but by living more fully within it.

Not that this detracts from the power of the film and myth as they stand. They lead us to contemplate questions essential to our humanity. But a Christian can, I think, fairly see Christ in the negative space of the story, as he seems to occupy all the ancient stories. For he is their fulfillment. The symbolic world of the myth is answered on the deepest level by Christ, for whom the myth, if it is a true myth, was made. The divine guest in the bamboo grove dwells with us forever.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is one of the good stories, free of sugarcoating and false optimism, radiant with the beauty and depth of feeling of traditional wisdom. It is one I would happily show my children.

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One comment on “The Gospel of the Princess Kaguya

  1. Andrew says:

    I thought i was a big fan of Studio Ghibli, but i didn’t know about this film so i guess i’m not as devoted as i thought i was. Thanks for doing this review because now i know the film exists and thanks for the interesting and novel (to me) interpretation.

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