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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The Silence of Animals: A Review

The Silence of Animals is a recent book by iconoclast writer John Gray. Gray gives the impression of an ancient pagan philosopher, at odds with his time. His influence as a popular thinker can be attributed not only to his literary style, but his willingness to attack cherished popular beliefs and espouse a radical rethinking of basic assumptions.

Gray is an atheist, but decidedly an outsider. Contemporary atheist culture tends toward secular humanism and rationalism, philosophies Gray despises as vacuous and challenges in this book. Not the stereotypical modern atheist, Gray is a genuine philosophical skeptic. His worldview is an eclectic composite of the archaic and the novel.

To his mind, the important question is not whether one believes in God, but whether one believes in humanity. An atheist who answers the latter question affirmatively is still a “believer.” Such an atheist is also, methinks, the principal target of his book. Gray tries to persuade his readers to give up the last vestiges of religious thought and embrace a more thoroughgoing, liberated godlessness.

Why, then, should I find this book worth reading? If I do not accept his premise that theism is an impossible intellectual position (and I don’t), the rest of his argument—the whole antihuman tirade—is not especially convincing or apposite. Nevertheless, Gray strikes me as a potentially important original voice. His is a well-read, blunt, oddly appealing nihilism. Though his attacks are not directed chiefly at religion in The Silence of Animals, the alternative to religious thought Gray espouses here may prove far more dangerous to Christianity than any of the popular rationalisms that currently afflict our culture.

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