During the school year, I’m not always in touch with what’s going on in the entertainment world, but just today I cam across this review: ‘Princess Kaguya’ a royal pleasure. This animated full length movie is based on the 10th century Japanese tale Taketori monogatari 竹取物語. Wow! A 1,000-year-old Japanese classical tale has made it’s way to the big screen–not just in Charlotte, NC, but around the globe!* This is just another example of the joy western audiences can discover by exploring Japanese literature and culture.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya Trailor–sorry, no dialogue. Just Japanese singing in the background.

“A Princess’ Crime and Punishment”?? Not sure that was the best choice for a tagline, but…

David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas and subsequent movie adaption is the most prominent example of a recent Hollywood blockbuster that draws directly from Japanese literature. Mithchell’s film (and novel) are based on the 20th century author Mishima Yukio’s (三島由紀夫) tetralogy “Sea of Fertility” (Hōjō no Umi 豊饒の海). Mishima’s works (including the four novels in this tetralogy) can usually be found in English bookstores, so read them! Mishima and other 20th century authors are widely translated into English and other languages for a number of reasons. One practical reason for this is that modern Japanese literature is written in the modern Japanese language. Therefore people studying Japanese can read these works and are more likely to enjoy them. “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” or, Taketori monogatari, is a classical Japanese work, written in classical Japanese. Classical Japanese is a little bit more difficult to read and understand and is not spoken today, so the casual student of Japanese is not likely to hear or come in contact with it unless they really go out of their way to study and enjoy it. So, I am very surprised and happy to see that this new animated movie draws on a classical Japanese literary text as its inspiration! Hopefully it will get people’s interest in Japanese literature beyond modern authors like Mishima and Haruki Murakami and into the foundations of modern Japanese lit.!

Taketori monogatari’s common English title is “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” So, even though Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime かぐや姫) is the star of the tale, the title refers to a “bamboo cutter.” The bamboo cutter in the story is a poor old man who lives with his wife in [what I imagine to be] the solitude of the densely forested mountains. A bamboo cutter’s job would have been to perhaps collect bamboo for kindling/ firewood and for building material. The old man and his wife are childless, but one day while collecting bamboo the old man discovers this beautiful, “three-inch tall” girl inside a bamboo stalk. The tale then quickly turns into something reminiscent of a western fairy-tale, with suitors travelling from far and wide to win Kaguya-hime as their bride. What’s kind of far-out about this tale is that Kaguya-hime is an alien! She has been exiled from the Moon to Earth as a punishment, and at the end of the story these aliens come to Earth to retrieve her!!

"The Moon people come to retrieve Kaguya-hime"

“The Moon people come to retrieve Kaguya-hime”

This tale (monogatari 物語) dates back to the 10th century (ca. 909). This was Japan’s Heian 平安 era, typically represented by high aristocrat culture, which was lavish, elite, and very much exclusive, barring the common people from participating in it. Composing poetry and creating poetry anthologies were typical literary pursuits in Japan prior to Taketori monogatari which is not poetry, but rather a lengthy narrative tale. A great deal of quasi-historical literature was also produced at the time. And, I should mention that a lot of formal writing (whether for religion, law, or creative pursuits) was done in Chinese. From a writing point of view, these means that people wrote usually in Chinese characters. From a language point of view, this means that both Chinese AND Japanese sentence syntax were used (and often mixed together). Furthermore, both Chinese-like pronunciations and Japanese pronunciations were used to read the Chinese characters.

Taketori monogatari is written mostly in the homegrown Japanese hiragana characters though, which points to a shift in Japanese literature (and a shift in the sense of literary-self). Hiragana was more easily learned and therefore more accessible to a larger audience, of whom women came to be a larger proportion of, whereas literature thick with Chinese characters was more exclusive–accessible to the highest educated aristocratic men and those in the religious class. The author of Taketori monogatai is unknown, but after it’s publication woman in Japan began to produce literature in a variety of genres and in a number of different contexts. The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari 源氏物語) written in the early 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu 紫式部 is a good example of Japanese literature by women that is probably pretty well known to western readers.

There is so much more that I could get into about the time period (Heian era), the genre (monogatari 物語), and other Taketori monogatari fun facts, but one thing I want to point out is that this movie, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” is not  exactly an “adaptation of a Japanese folk tale,” as the author says in the movie review. That is, Taketori monogatari is not a Japanese folk tale–it is most definitely an elaborate piece of classical Japanese literature, which is based on a number of Japanese (and Chinese!) myths. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter has been translated into a number of languages, so I recommend that fans of this movie get a hold of one! It is not long and is an easy read. English versions of it appear in a number of J-lit anthologies. There is also a bi-lingual, illustrated version that was translated by the great Donald Keene and is the version that I would recommend if you just like the movie and only want to read this story. Getting a J-lit anthology is good, however, if you want to maybe get a taste of other classical Japanese, Heian literature, which ranges from the very funny, to strangely erotic, to depressing, to the deeply moving.

My introduction to Japanese literature class is studying about Heian literature now, so I’m excited to see this movie review online. The students in my class are from all over the world (only 1 Japanese student!) so I’ll have to ask them if “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” has come out in their home countries or not.


*actually, the article doesn’t make it clear if the film has been released in all over America, or if it’s just some special, local showing. After reading the article, I assumed that since it was Studio Ghibli that it was being shown all over the place–this may not be the case though. Sorry!


3 thoughts on “Movie: THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA

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