Princess Kaguya is an interesting story and one that’s had my attention for a long time; otherwise known as the Tale of the Wood/Bamboocutter, simply Princess Kaguya or the Moon Princess/Princess from the Moon. Fundamentally it’s a story seen in many cultures but this version is said to be first recorded in 10th century Japan and the forerunner of Japanese novels/prose. It’s old lore and so I was very interested to see how Studio Ghibli would portray it, they being the ‘Disney of the East’ somewhat but of a very different style and tone, interestingly enough before they were established as a company one of the founders contracted the team that put together that classic film of beauty The Last Unicorn (1982) to make Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and from their track record I knew they wouldn’t do what Disney did to the ever scattered cinders/ash girls stories in their Cinderella (1950), but still.
Note – the film was originally released in 2013, the English dub was released in UK cinemas in March 2015.
Thankfully I can say that even with artistic licence this is the most ‘complete’ version of the story I’ve come across which is very important to me as there are many stories of children born of plants, usually tree stalks or flowers and indeed many are not seen as myth/legend at all but actual events at least in basis though not many in a religious sense. That said there are still ‘people’ treated/held as living idols in places and I would describe them as birds in gilded cages much for the satisfaction of those around them and hierarchy than for their own personal well being and perhaps other world/other dimensional, spiritual or divine connections.
PLOT AND VARIATIONS IN VERSIONS
A Young Child
A bamboo cutter finds a tiny fully formed person in a bamboo tree grove, she is luminescent and sleeping. He takes her home to his wife and as strange as it may seem they fight over who gets to look after her, both seeing her a blessing for either one of them rather than both initially. This first point is in itself important; in most similar stories people wish for children (Thumbelina style) or specifically for a god/deity/spirit to come to them in child form as a reward or favour, here it doesn’t make it clear if the woodcutter and/or his wife wished for her and in keeping with the original verse but not usually highlighted – we don’t actually know when she arrived on Earth and the reason(s) why and whether she’s changed form are obscure/speculative.
Either way, and without knowing any better in my opinion, the miniature Princess turns into a baby and so both have to raise her (I haven’t seen one story where someone turns into a baby for human parents turning out well, no matter how hard things are/can be amnesia is not a good thing and makes the being vulnerable). The wife is even turned into a ‘mother’ by suddenly lactating (something I’d be be opposed to without the person knowing and consenting – there’s plenty of stories religious or otherwise where people are ‘come upon’/impregnated/possessed by other entities though here there’s no question that the couple wanted her after she’s found). Appropriately for such a ‘gift’ the Princess comes well provided for by the bamboo grove with gold and fine clothing. (Similar to another divinity, Indian this time, for who it was said pots of Gold appeared underneath the house – though along with everything that should have been for her were stolen.)
After this much of the screentime is devoted to her childhood, from her first steps to finding friends. Perhaps due to being in a small village the baby/toddler is of keen local interest to other children who become competition to her father for her attention and both sides try to name her with the father eventually winning out (well, cheated) with ‘Princess’ over the kid’s favourite ‘Little Bamboo’. This part of her life is portrayed as sweet and probably very endearing to parents/new parents, it’s also slow paced and reminded me of Ghibli’s other film My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Princess’ growth is unlike the others as she has spurts and so the other children often marvel at how she’s grown from one moment to the next.
She knows things that she wasn’t taught in this ‘life’.
The children are portrayed as seemingly innocent but this is the calm before the storm; children are often seen as soon to be adults doing adult things e.g. they are shown hunting and along with her accelerated growth plus the father’s firm belief in what being a Princess means he suddenly tells the mother and Princess that they’re going off to live in the city so she can be raised and cultivated as she should be. This is major deviation from many versions of the story though not necessarily from these types of stories in general i.e. in many it’s enough that she’s a Princess living in the forest/village but in other stories where the/a parent/guardian has decided they want more and interpret signs and messages how they want to, the child is removed from ‘safe’ circumstances and things usually get sinister/abusive. Hence to me this signalled a turning point in the story and indeed it was.
A Young Teen/Lady
They set up shop (a mansion) and she’s given geisha oops I mean etiquette training by a self important female tutor who knows everything about being a Lady and moreso a Lady of Rank, and even moreso than that – what it is to attain the ultimate happiness of such, a successful marriage proposal from people they don’t really know beyond title and what happens after the ceremony doesn’t matter as long as they produce suitably deemed ‘heir’.
Being that females, particularly ‘attractive’ ones (of any race), traditionally are seen and drawn as lighter skinned to their peers ‘goth’ Whiteness is preferred. Also the eyebrows are plucked only to draw them back on;
“but the sweat will run into my eyes!”
Don’t worry noble Ladies/Princesses don’t sweat.
They Blacken the teeth;
“but I won’t be able to open my mouth, smile or laugh!”
Don’t worry noble Ladies/Princesses aren’t generally looked at before marriage, and they don’t smile or have reason to laugh.
The clothing is too tight and restrictive;
“How do I pick something up or move?”
You shuffle, shuffle and shuffle some more. (Thank goodness they weren’t into toe cutting, breast ironing or circumcision. So why go to such lengths? Control and training of submission and conforming to rules, the more nonsensical the acceptance of such shows success in obedience training.)
The story basically goes on that way for a while as she’s taught how to be graceful and play music etc similar to the customs where poor girls are uncomfortably dressed up as dolls annually though richer girls are sculpted into living dolls rather than a friend or family member. The film outlines ceremonies associated with aging in Japan well and when menstruation starts, it becomes a race against time.
She’s finally ready to receive a name from an ‘official’ and is named ‘Princess Kaguya’ due to her glowing beauty. During her naming/coming of age ceremony she has a strange prophetic dream sequence and then the interest and proposals start. There’s no mention of how long it took for her to get to menstruation/puberty age but some believe it took a few months.
Marriage, or not.
It’s a bit of a contrasting situation where sure her family have the money and the materialistic status symbols but they don’t have the heritage so lower ‘caste’ men think why shouldn’t they have a ‘legitimate’ interest and shot at her while the ‘nobles’ have heard of her beauty but she’s too low born for them… Until they hear that she came from inside a bamboo. That’s a game changer and means that she has qualities worth trying to get in their gene pool and the man who assessed how fine a lady she is regales five of them in particular with his impression of her refinement so a hairsbreadth away from openly salivating they rush to get to her.
When they meet her they all proclaim she is a magnificent treasure that they would treat like other rare-to-mythological treasures – they speak in such a way that she can’t really comprehend them or if there’s any sincerity so she asks them to prove their claims by finding such legendary objects. They’re astounded at the idea but leave, her governess is infuriated and her father incredulous. How could she possibly ask such a thing especially after she was given such amazingly high honour by their proposals? She should be grateful for their attention and realize the monumental occasion.
The marriage meeting is also a major deviation in ‘feel’ in my opinion, it’s much more modern. It’s not that it’s a joint meeting where all the suitors are present which is strange (though not impossible) but it’s the tone in which the Princess’ words are represented. In many stories a Princess in such a situation is seen as ‘cold’, ‘unfeeling’, ‘unloving’ and generally bad for not wanting to get married out of duty and leave her home/family or for perhaps wanting to get married out of love. It’s usually also shown that she’s not getting any younger whereas there’s no age limit on how old a male can be to marry a girl/teen and in keeping with that all of the suitors are older than her, some much older and it’s all very cringeworthy. I felt that there was no blame from the storytellers towards her here.
(Females may not be killed if their husband dies nowadays but there are still places where she’d have to marry his male next of kin even if he has children her age, on the other hand if a wife dies first it depends on whether the man already has a ‘suitable’ heir as to his marriage prospects, if he’s got one he’s not bound by as much restriction to if he didn’t have one but then other places make up for that with having multiple wives as well as lovers of course.)
It takes years (and she doesn’t seem to age much) but no matter the cost the suitors endeavour to pull off their claims by hook or by crook and thankfully they don’t all come back. (Interestingly a point not often highlighted, but each of the treasures are of the five elements in Eastern lore.) However their failure leaves the field open for an even bigger tyrant; the Emperor tries more direct use of obligation aka physical force to get her to become one of his wives. Her fear and shock cause something unexpected to happen and a wish is granted… Her people are coming from the Moon to take her home.
I won’t go into the ending even though it’s a well known story but suffice to say both she and her parents aren’t happy at the confirmation that she was only there on borrowed time and ironically her parents act in all the shame, disgrace and ungratefulness that she was accused of.
Another modern touch is that traditionally the Princess is collected by Celestial Maidens and as ambiguous as South East and Indo-Chinese Asian art can be at times, not all of the entourage look female but there’s also the point of ‘original’ sex and gender (pre-dating humans as we think of ourselves) of Asian and other divinities.
Her ‘parents’ go from being parental/guardians/protectors to her keepers and it’s all about status to societal standards; airs, graces, titles and entitlement of such over purity, freedom and trust. Her ‘father’ is the main driving force behind this and the ‘mother’ is shown as caring and there for Kaguya but she goes along with it all and doesn’t stand up for Kaguya or respect her wishes over her life/person. They argue that they only want what’s best but they already have what is ‘best’, what is sought after and above Earthly standards.
Kaguya is faced with many parallels with how people/creatures are seen; from country ‘hicks’ to ‘grasping’ city folk, rich and poor, customs and expectations such as the use of prostration, the feeling of freedom and wilderness to cultivation and orchestration and the more she sees the more isolated and scared she feels. She and we the audience see her old friends again and it’s very upsetting.
There’s almost romance with one of her old friends but there’s no time for it and it seems he already has a wife and child; when it comes down to it they are too different and are on separate paths. (Plus a question would be: has/does her accelerated growth stop and just because she’s physically aged doesn’t mean the mind has caught up.) Ghibli could of easily made it into a love story (sometimes happens in versions of this type of story) where she runs away with a lover and is later separated or ‘lives happily ever after’ with him (or not). I’m glad Ghibli didn’t take it there and significantly they show her falling into the water after being with him and her time with him is/like a dream.
It’s very easy to see all ‘divinities’ as parasitic or to blame for many things but this one reminds me of the narratives/accounts that show such personages being taken advantage of and where the people around them get a bit of power and treat them as livestock rather than sharing pure relationship. This story is one of the more ‘tame’ ones where the protagonist manages to hold out and is rescued though in this case she wasn’t old enough or hadn’t had the time to digest and realize her being taken back home was actually a rescue because she was still dependent on her keepers. There are other stories where the divinity is enslaved, raped by parents, prostituted, married off, used as breeding stock for their properties, black magic done to them, impoverished/destitute, try to escape and followed or dragged back and basically anything bad that can be done to them is. The Tale of Princess Kaguya nor the Japanese story it’s based on goes that far so has a ‘U’ film rating but it’s on its way there, such a situation can easily go that way but heck it wouldn’t be a family film.
ART & SOUND
The art is old fashioned and might seem dated particularly if compared to modern animation styles; but it’s water colour, ink and charcoal look grow on you. They certainly don’t lose out against crisp, bright, colourful films when it comes to portraying movement and emotion – everything moves with the spirit of each scene from playful to panicked.
As expected of Ghibli the dub is very well done, the parts are convincingly voiced and I actually preferred the dub to the sub-titles which is rare for me. There are some songs/snippets of in here but no big musical numbers – they’re all very gentle.
I didn’t notice the score so much as it was gentle as well but really came to the fore in action scenes and was suitably heart pulsing but when in the country the natural background sounds e.g. of insects was welcome and realistic.
ALL IN ALL
I’d say this film describes the story as well as was possible – it’s emotional, moving and aside from a few references doesn’t need to/use or hide things in symbolism and isn’t surreal. The telling is straightforward and one that tells someone like me who places it in a comparative perspective ‘don’t forget’. To any innocent divinities out there; if you’re thinking of being incarnated here don’t, on the whole/in the long run it ain’t worth it. There’s only one thing I think Ghibli could have changed with artistic license and that’s the use of the cloak at the end, personally I’d scrap it.
There are many adaptations of and references to the story from shadow puppetry to Hello Kitty but a few apt ones are:
Claire (2001) – A new yet old version of this story; a male couple find the Princess in an ear of corn and then follows the story of the Moon Princess. It was filmed in Black & White and has no sound but was still very watchable.
Brave (2012) – Disney, does it need other introduction? :-) A ‘wild’ Princess fighting for her freedom and also has interesting cultural themes involved though overshadowed.
Ayashi no Ceres (2000) – Adult anime series – A Celestial Maiden bathes in a stream and was prevented from leaving and abused. The story continues from her descendants.