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Step into the World of Kaguya Hime

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New York is still experiencing brutally cold weather and heavy snow, but spring is inching closer. During this time of year in Japan, people celebrate Hinamatsuri, or Girls’ Day, by decorating hina-ningyo (dolls wearing robes traditionally worn by court nobles) and with blooming flowers and colorful, special Hinamatsuri sweets. This tradition tells people that spring is just around the corner. In keeping with this custom, we invite you to step into the world of Kaguya Hime, the most frequently told princess story in Japan and, more important, the oldest Japanese prose narrative.

A Simple yet Engrossing Story
Commonly known as Taketori Monogatari (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), and often called Kaguya Hime when told to children, this story was completed around the tenth century and is reportedly the first prose narrative in Japan.* Neither the exact year of completion nor the story’s author are known, but it is based on a folktale.

Some Chopsticks NY readers might be familiar with this story from the recently released animated film Kaguyahime no Monogatari (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) produced by Studio Ghibli, which tells a version of the story with additional subplots and episodes. The original story is simple, yet it sparks the reader’s imagination. In other words, each reader can interpret the story in his or her own way.

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There are several English versions of the story available online, but here is a brief summary:

Once upon a time, there lived an old bamboo cutter and his wife. One day, he found a baby girl in the bamboo forest and took her home, and the old couple raised her. During the years they cared for the girl, the bamboo cutter also found a lot of gold and precious objects in the forest, making them rich enough to live like nobles. The girl grew into a beautiful young lady and was given the name Kaguya Hime. 

The rumor of Kaguya Hime’s beauty spread throughout Kyo, then the capital of Japan, and five noblemen proposed without even seeing her. Unwilling to marry any man, she asked them each to carry out an extremely difficult mission in order to win her hand in marriage.

All five men failed to accomplish their missions. Then, hearing about Kaguya Hime, the Emperor became interested in her. First, he summoned her to serve at his court, but she refused. Then he came to her residence by himself and tried forcefully to take her to his court. Upon being touched, Kaguya Hime magically disappeared like a ghost and then reappeared. Even having seen her supernatural behavior, the Emperor still cared for her (and for three years after the incident, they exchanged poems**). 

Starting in the spring of that year, Kaguya Hime became quite depressed when she looked up at the Moon. After being questioned by her adoptive parents, she revealed that she was not human and was supposed to go back to the Moon soon. She also disclosed that she was sent down to Earth because of a sin she committed on the Moon. 

Her adoptive parents decided to protect her from the Moon’s representatives coming to snatch her and hired guards. The Emperor also sent samurai. But on the day of her return to the Moon, all the guards and soldiers on Earth were useless because of the magical powers of the Moon’s envoys. Just before Kaguya Hime put on the Ten no Hagoromo (literally a “feather-light gown from heaven”) that would make her forget everything she experienced on earth, she wrote a letter to her adoptive parents. She also wrote another letter to the Emperor and left an “elixir of life” for him.

Thinking it useless to live forever without Kaguya Hime, the Emperor had the letter and elixir burned on top of the mountain that was closest to heaven.***

*Japan’s oldest nonfiction writing is the Kojiki, completed in the eighth century.
**Exchanging poems was a way for aristocratic men and women to get to know each other before marriage in those days.
***The highest mountain in Japan is Mt. Fuji.  The description in the Taketori story proves that Mt. Fuji was an active volcano at that time.

Establishing Japanese Narrative Structure

Taketori Monogatari is an epic, but its pages are minimal. It is written in ki sho ten ketsu, the golden structure of Japanese narratives, which was inspired by a Chinese poetry format. Ki is the beginning of the story, the sho segment develops it, ten adds twists to it, and ketsu resolves it all.

The Taketori story was completed in the tenth century, during which Japan strongly respected Chinese culture and tried to learn from it. Considering that, it is quite natural that the story has Chinese influences. It is one of the earliest literary works written in kana, a Japanese writing system created using Chinese characters. There are also a substantial number of Japanese tanka poems quoted in the story. Taketori also features episodic storytelling, a characteristic of Japanese classic literature. The tales of how each of the five noble suitors failed to convince Kaguya Hime to marry him follow that style. The Bamboo Cutter is a great example of how Japan adapted Chinese culture to create its own unique heritage.

Tragic Princess or Femme Fatale?
As mentioned before, the Taketori story is also called Kaguya Hime, usually when told to children. When the story is told using modern, simple Japanese that children can understand, most of the time the princess is depicted as a tragic heroine. This is, however, just one interpretation. Kaguya Hime, who rejected five noblemen––who as a result of her rejection lost social standing, confidence, and, in one instance, life––can be seen as a femme fatale. Also, some could view her as a gold digger because she eventually got along with the Emperor, the highest ranking man in the country, after giving the other five men the cold shoulder. On the other hand, she is a Peter Pan–like character who refuses to grow up and leave her parents. To enjoy envisioning your own Kaguya Hime, consider reading the original, complete version of Taketori Monogatari, not the children’s versions.

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Science Fiction and Political Aspects
Since she is not a human being on Earth, Taketori can be categorized as a fantasy or science fiction story. Visually intriguing, the story would require many special visual effects if it were adapted into a live-action film. From the very beginning, when the bamboo cutter found a glowing bamboo tree, until the climactic fight between the guards on Earth and the Moon’s envoys, the story is full of gorgeous imagery. The animated film and picture books absolutely help you to visualize the world of Taketori, but they might keep you from creating your own vision of the story. Here at Chopsticks NY, we think it’s better to read the literary version and let your imagination provide the visuals.

It might be hard to detect this without knowing the real-life, historical context, but Taketori is also thought to be an anti-government story. Three out of the five noblemen who proposed to Kaguya Hime in vain really existed back in the seventh century, and the remaining two noblemen are suspected to be modeled after two other real people from that era. These men depicted as losers were powerful figures in the current government that was then dominated by the Fujiwara family. Also, the Moon people describe the Earth as a “dirty place” several times. The Taketori story could be seen as indirectly criticizing the corruption of the government. The peaceful capture of Kaguya Hime from all the military power on Earth could be interpreted as a wish for the peaceful takeover by a healthy government.

Who Wrote the Story?
Probably the biggest mystery about the Taketori story is who wrote it. Trying to figure out who the author might be requires an understanding of the society of the Heian period (794–1185). At that time, the literacy rate was extremely low, and only higher-class people were able to read and write. Also, the story contains many descriptions of aristocratic lifestyles in the then-capital city, so the author must have been a part of that class. Plus, the topics depicted in Taketori encompass Buddhism and Chinese history and folklore, and also include Japanese waka poems. Moreover, the person who wrote it must have had anti-Fujiwara political leanings. Considering all those factors, scholars have listed several candidates, but the true author remains a mystery.