The Tale of Princess Kaguya

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The tale of the Bamboo-cutter is like a tale as old as time. The very recent animated adaptation of this famous folk tale ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’ (2013) is no less mesmerising and spellbinding on the big screen. The movie is directed by the legendary animator Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli. The hand-drawn pastel and water coloured animation brings back the memories of the illustrations that used to come along with such oriental folktales in the children’s books. The story is more or less known to all. A bamboo-cutter found a small and little doll-like girl while cutting bamboos in the woods and brought her home to his wife. Next day, he found gold nuggets in the stalk of bamboo. The childless couple brought her up as their own believing that she is a divine boon and named her Kaguya (meaning, “radiant night”). As she grew up into a woman of extraordinary beauty, men from around the countries came asking for her hand. But she kept refusing their proposals. She put five of her suitors into test but they failed to please her. The emperor himself came asking for her hand but her answer remained the same as before. He kept on proposing to her and she kept on refusing him; telling him that she belonged to a distant realm and that is why she cannot marry him. When the summer came, she often used to stare at the full moon with her tear-filled eyes. When being asked, she told her parents that the people from the empire of the Moon would come to take her away as her days on the mortal realm are going to end very soon. And finally on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month the Moon people came as promised and gave her the elixir of life to drink and put the robe of the Moon or the Feather robe on her, making her forget all the memories, sorrows, joys, and experience that she gathered on the earth. And thus she was gone.

The movie stays true to this original tale of the bamboo-cutter. But a 21st century rendition of an ancient story must serve something new on the plate. And the movie doesn’t fail to please its eagle-eyed audience. The movie turns out to be ‘delicately’ cynical as it starts dealing with the efforts of the nouveau riche parents to cling on to the conditions of being accepted in an elite society and the patriarchal nightmare that Kaguya faces as a result. The bamboo-cutter who used to live in the woodland, found his fortune flourishing after he found the princess and plenty of gold coins and multiple robes afterwards. The bamboo-cutter decided to build a palace in the capital city for his daughter’s betterment. But what really takes place at the city is her imprisonment. The father is gradually engulfed by the urban patriarchal system that sets a nightmare for Kaguya. His sudden act of appointing a tutor and maids for her daughter or arranging an extravagant banquet for the naming ceremony- all these seem to be nothing but vague efforts to blend in with the surrounding aristocratic, elite families. At one point, he seems quite infuriated with Kaguya when she tells him to invite her old rural friends into the banquet. But her mother, although she never really raises her voice against the husband, does not let the system corrupt her. We see her settle in an attached wooden cabin like the one they had back in the mountains and nurture a beautiful small garden as if to nurture the microcosmic pastoral paradise they have left behind. The mother-daughter relationship, however, did not get ruined by the poison that the wealth and the ambition brought. Settling in the capital became tougher and tougher day by day for the Princess as she grew up. Unlike the original tale, the daughter is named Kaguya in a naming ritual in the palace only after she came of age (Her friends used to called her “li’l bamboo” while her parents called her by “my princess”). The hypocrisy behind the norms of the elite society begins to unfold in front of her eyes when she is told to sit behind the curtain for hours and hours in the banquet of her own naming ceremony…doing nothing. Her life goes through hell when Lady Sagami, her tutor, tries to tame her in order to change her into an elite lady from a rural girl. The movie becomes directly satiric towards the ancient Japanese society and tradition as the training session begins. The more Kaguya is told not to move, not to run, not to smile, not to speak, not to laugh, not to scream, not to cry, the more disruptive she becomes. She gets frightened when Lady Sagami comes to put traditional make up on her face, and blacken her teeth. She refuses to live like a “doll” and also announces boldly that if an ideal noble princess is meant to live like that then there is no chance that she is a human being. She only finds her peace in the thought of her rural haven where everything ran wild, where she could breathe freely. The nostalgia plays a very important part in the flow of the entire story. Her inability to go back to the wilderness makes her realize that both the palace and the city are prisons and there is no escape whatsoever. She asks her mother for a small part of her garden as a memoir of her wild and free childhood. In the end she wishes to go back to the mountains that she calls “home” for one last time before leaving the realm of the Earth; her mother does not hold her back. There we see her feel the air, the soil, the trees, the long lost love of her long lost childhood friend Sutemaru for one last time.

The reality hits her hard when one of her five suitors dies while trying to pass the test she had put him in. She understands that she has always been an ‘outsider’ and always will be. Her pain was unbearable and all she could want was her lost freedom. And so she could not help but pray to the Moon to take her back from all the pain when the Emperor grabbed her forcefully even after she refused to be his wife more than once. She confesses to her mother that her curiosity to feel the mysteries of pain and sorrow and happiness of human kind is the reason she was sent to this mortal realm from the empire of the Moon. But her prayers cannot be unheard and she bids farewell to the ones she loves: her Mama, Papa (who realized his mistakes in the end) and Sutemaru and the mountains of her childhood. The 15th day of the eighth lunar month came at last and so came the Moon people. Their arrival is marked by the beautiful oxymoron of the joyous music and the tears of goodbye. A figure of Buddha leads the procession with a promise of peace and harmony. Kaguya has no choice. She says a final goodbye to her parents and as soon as the Feather robe is put on her, all the sorrows, pains, aches, toils, anguish, joys, laughter, smiles and memories take peaceful refuge into oblivion. She disappears beyond the horizon.

The artifices of civilisation have been weaving the web to catch freedom, candour and innocence for centuries. And when the lashes of the social chains are on the verge of destroying the independence of an unblemished entity, isolation offers a safe shelter. Oblivion, eventually, becomes the ultimate destiny. Surely, the time has grown old, but the tale hasn’t.

– Subarnarekha Pal

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