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.

Continue reading

O Radix Jesse: Meditations on the O Antiphons

Sr. Angsar Holmberg, CSJThe third O Antiphon is to the Root of Jesse.

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, who stands as an ensign of the peoples,
before whom kings will shut their mouths,
whom the nations will entreat,
come to free us, refuse now to be hindered.

This antiphon hails Christ as the Root of Jesse. This time, it is not Christ’s divinity that is on display, but his messiahship. The great Wisdom of the Cosmos and Lord of Israel is shown as member and head of the royal house of David.

The first line of this antiphon is drawn from Isaiah 11:10, the second from Isaiah 52:15. Isaiah 11 depicts the “root of Jesse” flowering again; the House of David, whose degraded descendants would lose the throne within two centuries, would produce an heir on whom rested the Divine Spirit. This anointed king would rule with justice and turn Zion into a new Eden, and all the Gentiles would be drawn to him out of their own sin and desolation.

This title is an essentially human one, but not at odds with the previous portraits of his transcendent divinity. These successive antiphons embody the orthodox doctrine that Christ is wholly God and wholly Man. The Son, in assuming humanity, became a part of the same genetic House of David that he elected. Again, we see that the Son in the incarnation has come to inhabit the house he prepared through time. Millennia of longing for the divine were finally answered in a form that could be touched and seen.

Continue reading