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.

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Noah: A Film Review

 

(Minor spoilers.)

However Noah looked from the previews, I went into the theater determined to give the film a fair chance. The opening scenes took me aback as rather amateurish. When I left the theater, my feelings toward the film were ambivalent. When my friends and I ended up in a forty-minute conversation about its themes and message, I realized that the film operated on two levels, distinct yet so cluttered together that they are jarring as they play out on the screen. One level is that of a pseudo-Biblical “epic” offering us objects of contemplation as diverse and contrived as magic seeds from Eden that grow forests overnight and six-armed rock-Ents taking on armies. It is this level only that some will see and leave disappointed. The other, lower level is the true human epic, where questions of justice, mercy, righteousness, and free will converge on the broken, confused, devout figure of Noah.

I have now seen four of Aronofsky’s films. The disturbing and erratic Pi, the gut-wrenching Requiem for a Dream, and the delicate spires of The Fountain each testify to the fundamental eccentricity of Aronofsky’s direction, the heady blend of brilliance and borderline silliness that leaves the viewer a slightly different person when the credits roll. Noah, despite its potential appeal to a mainstream audience, fits readily within that canon. It is frustrating and beautiful. Iceland is on gorgeous display; the CGI is acceptable. The acting is flawless, while the dialogue ranges from subtle and gripping to embarrassing and comical. The more “traditional” Hollywood elements (i.e., action scenes and Biblical mayhem) were probably pumped up by Paramount, which was no doubt desirous of nurturing a blockbuster, anxious to please both the action movie fan and the wary evangelical. This often gaudy surface level at times obscures the nuance and complexity of the lower level, but not always, and we the viewers are offered enough glimpses into the rich inner drama to come away feeling that the movie was messy and flawed and a little wacky, but also, somehow, profound.

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