The Tale of Princess Kaguya

(Check out my previous Takahata blog on My Neighbors the Yamadas if you missed it)

In 1999, Isao Takahata released his first completely computer-animated feature ‘Yamadas’, which was a critical success and despite its production methods looked more like a hand-drawn and painted film than almost anything he had created previously. The film, however, did not recoup its budget in the box office, and this, plus the nature of the animation style as antithetical to his partner Hayao Miyazaki’s cel-based approach, forced him into a position in which Studio Ghibli was not going to give him money for a new project unless the script proved more marketable than the meandering, slice of life story of the Yamadas.

In 2008, he came up with a concept: an adaptation of the Japanese folktale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. He secured principal funding through Studio Ghibli and began to assemble his team, which included soundtrack work from Joe Hisaishi: a Ghibli staple who had created the scores of every Miyazaki film since Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, but had hitherto never produced a score for any of Isao Takahata’s previous ten feature films. The production took five years and was set for release in summer 2013 alongside Miyazaki’s film ‘The Wind Rises.’ This would have been the first time the two had co-released a pair of films since 1988’s double bill of ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ and ‘Grave of the Fireflies.’ But Takahata didn’t meet the deadline and Ghibli missed what could have been an amazing opportunity.

Instead, the film’s release was pushed back to fall 2013. As the production took five years and implemented traditional hand-drawn animation with a high degree of quality control at every stage, the budget ballooned to the equivalent of $49.3 million USD, thereby making it the most expensive Japanese film ever made till that time. As Ghibli had already released a film that year (the aforementioned ‘The Wind Rises’) and made more than $130 million in box office on that film, one can guess that their publicity and advertising revenue had been mostly directed toward that film. ‘Kaguya’ languished in theatres grossing only $24.2 million against its near-$50 million budget. Isao Takahata is now in his mid-80s, is known recently for taking years to create his films, and his two most recent films were both box office bombs. ‘Kaguya’ is probably his final film.

‘Kaguya’ is mostly a pretty straightforward retelling of the Tale of Bamboo Cutter. A man is harvesting bamboo shoots in the grove near his home when a light emanates from amidst the grove. A shoot quickly begins to sprout from the ground below and when the man approaches, a doll-sized kami princess is found therein. He takes the girl out of the shoot and she turns into a baby, which he then brings home and begins to raise as his own daughter. The miraculous follows the girl in her development as the bamboo cutter’s wife searches for a wet nurse and finds that she herself has been inexplicably gifted with the production of the milk. Later, the bamboo cutter finds gold and silken kimono inside stalks of bamboo in his grove. He takes these as signs that he should bring the family into the capital to raise and establish the girl as a princess.

As the narrative develops, the girl grows quickly and makes friends with local children in the bamboo grove community before being unceremoniously spirited away to the capital by her surrogate father and mother. Once there, she rebels against the tutelage of Lady Sagami who has been hired to teach the young girl to become a noble young woman. Once the girl becomes trained, Lord Akita is brought in to her presence to gift her with a name. He decides on Kaguya, or ‘radiant light,’ as he is immediately enamored with the majestic presence of the young woman and senses the spark of divinity within her. Later, suitors arrive and try to win Kaguya’s hand, but all the while she does her best to ensure she remains unmarried, even to noblemen and the Mikado (the Emperor) himself.

The film diverges from the folktale toward the end. Kaguya finds in both versions that she is a kami of the village of the moon who resented living a sanitized, perfect, but boring life in the heavens and consequently broke the rules of that world in the hopes of being punished: specifically of being banished to the human world for a lifetime. Once she realizes her destiny, she establishes a spiritual connection with the moon and its denizens who are coming back to claim her and return her to the moon on the 15th of August. Here’s where things differ. In the original story, the beings are kami who take her back to the moon, then the young Emperor of Japan who was so taken with her marches his troops up Mt. Fuji to make an incense sacrifice to her in the hopes that she will remember him and potentially return one day. In Takahata’s film, created nearly a millennium after the story’s creation (in a simpler time when Japanese religion wasn’t quite so syncretic as it is today), the Buddha himself arrives on a cloud with a heavenly entourage to bring back Kaguya to the moon.

The problems with this rendition of the story are manifold. First, in the traditional teachings of Buddhism, Siddhartha claimed that there is no Siddhartha, that the identity is a construction and that upon death one achieves nirvana through extinction. Just as a candle flame burns for a time, we live for a short time. Just as the candle flame is not an essential being, but a constantly changing concept with no self or essence, so are we. And just as the flame ceases to be upon its extinguishing, so too will we be no more upon death. So, there should be no Buddha anymore in some non-existent spiritual plane on the moon.

Second, the beings of the moon were initially Kami, spirits or gods of the Shinto religion that supposedly exist only in Japan. Takahata’s identification of the kami with the Buddha is not novel insofar as Japanese have been making such co-identifications between Shinto deities and the deities or prophets of other religions for hundreds of years, but it is still illicit and nonsensical on an intellectual, logical level. But this is not how religion is practiced in Japan.

The interpolation of Buddha into the story by Takahata for his film presentation of the tale makes for an interesting visual and may have some personal meaning for him as a person. However, adding in an illicit Mahayana concept of an existing spiritual Buddha and using this Indian thinker to replace a traditional Japanese deity seems, on the face of it, absurd at best and pointless or offensive to real Shinto or Buddhist believers at worst. Though the animation is powerful, kinetic, and very Zen in its simplicity and style, the interpolation of the Buddha into a traditional Japanese story is something akin to Asian cultural imperialism imposed not from without but from within, by a Japanese victim of cultural illogic who has internalized the contradictions. Any other reading of the film ideologically is either based on a bad understanding of Shinto or Buddhism, or both.


Cody Ward

[Next Up: Ocean Waves]

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