Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

This year Studio Ghibli are releasing two films, one of them incorporating Hori Tatsuo's short story The Wind Has Risen, the other is an adaption of the 10th century folk story Kaguya hime monogatari, the film will be directed by Isao Takahata who has previously directed other films for Studio Ghibli including one of my favourites - Grave of the FirefliesKaguya hime monogatari is also known in English as The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter/Taketori monogatari,竹取物語, like many other folktales and early stories, the identity of the original author of this folktale has never been fully or officially ascertained. Kodansha International published this edition, in it's Illustrated Japanese Classics series back in 1998, a modern rendering by Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasunari, translated by Donald Keene with accompanying illustrations by Miyata Masayuki, the book is dual text.
The tale begins with the old bamboo cutter walking in the woods, he sees a light coming from one of the stems of bamboo, exploring further he discovers a young woman only three inches high, he also discovers that some surrounding stems are crammed with gold, he takes her home to be raised by his wife and becomes a wealthy man, the couple appear to be childless similar to the couple to be seen in the folktale Momotarō, the woman also seems to be imbued with a strange power, whenever the old man is in pain looking at her dissipates his discomfort, and also he finds that just the vision of her dissolves his angry temperament. After some time with her adoptive parents the woman grows to a normal size and the old bamboo cutter asks a diviner from Mimuroto to name her, he decides on Nayotake no Kaguya-hime, The Shining Princess of the Supple Bamboo. Over time the rumour of Kaguya-hime's radiant beauty begins to circulate and a number of suitors begin to make themselves known, among five of them are Princes and men of high rank. The old bamboo cutter getting more advanced in his age and thinking of her future implores Kaguya-hime to consider some of their proposals, although understanding that she is not his natural daughter she is not obliged to obey his wishes and she appears reluctant to acquiesce. She sets an almost near impossible challenge that; 'If one of the five will show me some special thing I wish to see, I shall know his affections are the noblest and become his wife' , Kaguya-hime's requested five objects include - from India the stone begging bowl of the Buddha, from the sea of Horai the branch from the tree with roots of silver and a trunk of gold, a robe of fur of rats from China, a jewel that shines five colours found in a dragon's neck and lastly; a swallows easy delivery charm.
The narrative begins to describe each man's quest in hunting out each of the requested items, each account ending in failure and marking the creation of a particular proverb. As these stories unfold a messenger from the Emperor has been dispatched to the bamboo cutter's house, as he too has heard about Kaguya-hime, but again she refuses to go to the palace, it's arranged that the Emperor will go to the bamboo cutter's house under the pretext that he is hunting in the area just to catch a glimpse of her. Slipping inside the house he grabs Kaguya-hime but she turns to a shadow, she laments that if she were born of this world she would go with him, the two have to be content with a relationship of exchanging letters and poetry.
The tale has often been referred to as an early science fiction tale, which maybe taking a slight leap in imagination, although after  Kaguya-hime explains to the old bamboo cutter of her origins from the moon and that soon she will be departing to make her return there, the thought arises that perhaps when it was written the moon may not have carried the same connotations as it might do in today's science riddled world, perhaps more of a celestial one rather than an extraterrestrial one, it'll be interesting to see how the ending appears in the film. Taketori monogatari is an evocative tale, one that ends on a truly monumental fashion that manages to work in an explanation of the naming of one of Japan's most iconic landmarks.
some related links ~
online text from the version in Yei Theodora Ozaki's Japanese Fairy Tales

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