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Princess Kaguya

Ghibli Studio drawing of Princess Kaguya

We've enjoyed exploring Heian monogatari and Japanese folktales over the last few weeks, and we loved our fantastic JanuaryInJapan Bookclub discussion of The Tale of Genji on Saturday! But there's one very special story that we haven't looked at yet. It may well be familiar to you, if you have seen the beautiful adaptation of 'Princess Kaguya' by Ghibli Studios. We're talking about The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.

Taketori Monogatari, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is a story that is about a century older than The Tale of Genji, and it is a wonderful blend of Japanese folktale and legend. In the brief retelling that follows, you'll see the recurrence of some familiar Heian themes.

Kaimami: Where a man peers through a hole in a fence to get a glimpse of an aristocratic lady in seclusion.

Transformation: The princess transforms into a shadow. We've looked at some folklore transformations in two of our earlier blogs:

Poetry: In the story, you'll see that the noblemen and the Emperor communicate with poetry, and that these are knotted with a symbolic branch or flower.

The humble home of the noble lady: Another familiar theme from Heian literature is the noble lady who is isolated and lonely and living far from the bright lights of the Kyoto court. In this story, Kaguya-hime claims to be a woman from a humble home covered in weeds and not fit to serve at the great court of Kyoto. We meet several ladies in the same predicament in the later novel The Tale of Genji.

If you're familiar with the Ghibli animation, you'll also see how the old story was altered slightly.

cherry blossom

Yukki and I love that our look at this fairytale-like story is coinciding with the Japanese festival of risshun (立春) or haru matsuri (春祭) - today's Festival of Spring.

Let's imagine that we're sitting beneath the cherry blossoms as the story unfolds...

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

Ima wa it was long ago...there lived a man called the Old Bamboo Cutter. Every day he would walk out to his forests and mountains to collect bamboo, which he would make into all sorts of wares. One day, he noticed a glowing at the base of a bamboo, and when he looked closer he discovered a tiny little girl, who was just the size of the palm of his hand.

Ghibli Studio's Princess Kaguya in a bamboo

He brought the little girl back to his simple home in the woods, and gave her to his kind wife to look after. The little girl was indescribably beautiful.

Often, when out in the woods, the Old Bamboo Cutter would find a bamboo glowing, and when he looked closer he would find a pile of gold. In this way, over time he grew rich.

The little girl quickly grew under their care, and within three months she was as tall as a woman. This child had a purity of features quite without equal anywhere in the world, and the house was filled with a light that left no corner dark.

One day, a diviner visited the humble home, to bestow a name on the girl, and she became Nayotake no Kaguya-hime, the Shining Princess of the Supple Bamboo. A grand feast was held to coincide with her naming and people came from far and wide to be entertained.

a Japanese house

Every man in the realm, whether high or low rank, could think of nothing but of how much he wanted to win Kaguya-hime, or at least to see her. Just to hear the rumours about her made them wild with love. Desperate, they made holes in the fence to try and glimpse her through it.

There were five men, of the highest rank, who pursued her most strongly. These men wrote poems of love and letters that they knotted with branches and sprays of flowers, but Kaguya-hime did not respond.

After a while, the old man acknowledged to his daughter that she was a divinity in human form, but he confessed that as he was old he would like to see her taken care of and married. But Princess Kaguya replied that she would only marry a distinguished man if he could prove that his feelings were sincere.

And so, Kaguya-hime set the five suitors a test, and she asked each man in turn to prove his love for her by bringing her an impossibly rare object. She asked for the stone begging-bowl of the Buddha from India; a branch of a golden tree that has roots of silver and fruits made of pearls; a robe made from the fur of Chinese fire rats; a jewel that shines in five colours that is found around a dragon's neck; and a swallow's charm for the easy delivery of its eggs.

Of course, all of these items were impossible to find, and the suitors tried and failed, or faked their items, which meant that Kaguya-hime remained unmarried.

Heian court ladies dressing Princess Kaguya

But then the Emperor heard of the girl of unearthly beauty, and he requested Kaguya-hime to serve at the court where he could see her, but the girl refused.

The refusal of the Emperor was astonishing, and the Old Bamboo Cutter apologised humbly to the Emperor, explaining that he had found her in the mountains long ago, and that her ways were not the ways of mortals. The Emperor realised that his love, the Princess Kaguya, was a transformed being.

The Emperor in Studio Ghibli's Princess Kaguya

The Emperor arranged a hunt to pass the poor home of the Old Bamboo Cutter just so that he could catch a glimpse of the renowned and beautiful woman.

Kaguya-hime tried to flee from his advance, and as the Emperor reached out and caught her by the sleeve of her robe she dissolved into airy shadow.

Kaguya-hime returned to her mortal shape, but refused him finally once more. The Emperor desolately returned to the palace without her. He wrote a deeply felt love poem to her to which she replied:

How could one who has lived her life in a house overgrown with weeds

dare to look upon a jewelled palace?

The Emperor exchanged letters with Kaguya-hime for three years: letters of verse that were elegantly tied with flowers. Kaguya-hime was kind to him, but over time she grew pensive.

She was to be found gazing at the moon and weeping bitterly, because she knew that her time was coming to return to the moon and to her mother and father, and that she must leave the kindly Old Bamboo Cutter and his beloved wife behind.

When the Emperor learned of the old man's trouble he sent a messenger to visit him to ask him if the rumours were true. The old man wept as he related that on the night of the full moon, men would come and take Kaguya-hime home with them. The Emperor was troubled for himself and for the poor Old Bamboo Cutter.

And so, the Emperor commanded a thousand soldiers equipped with bows and arrows to defend Kaguya-hime from the people from the moon. The Old Bamboo Cutter and his wife sat with Kaguya-hime in their arms in their barricaded home, so desperate they were to keep hold of her.

Princess Kaguya cries

But then, Kaguya-hime gently explained to them that she would have to go away, and she thanked them for their many kindnesses towards her.

When I have gone outside and sat looking at the moon I have always begged

for just one more year with you, but my wish was always refused.

And then, an extraordinary light filled the room with a dazzling brilliance, and men came down from the heavens wearing beautiful raiments, and riding on clouds. The soldiers let their arrows and bows fall to the ground.

At last a chariot arrived bearing Kaguya-hime's father, the king. The Old Bamboo Cutter bowed down before him, and the king explained to him that Kaguya-hime had been obliged to live in such humble surroundings to atone for something that she had done in the past. Now her punishment was over, and the heavenly people were come to take her home.

Princess Kaguya wears the Robe of Feathers

Before she parted, Kaguya-hime wrote a letter for the Emperor and enclosed a gift of the Elixir of Immortality. Then, the Robe of Feathers was put around her shoulders and she forgot the grief that she had caused the Old Bamboo Cutter and his wife, who wailed to see her go.

The Emperor, grief-stricken at his loss, refused the Elixir of Immortality, as he longed to be only with Princess Kaguya, and he ordered that the letter and the Elixir should be taken to the top of the mountain that was closest to heaven and set fire to.

The mountain was Mount Fuji, and even now, the smoke is said to still rise into the clouds...zo iitsutaetaru...and so it has been passed on...

[Abridged from the translation by David Keene].

Mount Fuji


The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter in The Tale of Genji

I think it's fascinating to read the characters in The Tale of Genji discuss The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The chapter is called The Picture Contest, and Genji has arranged a competition as a pastime:

In the first round The Old Bamboo Cutter, the ancestor of all tales,

was pitted against the Toshikage chapter of The Hollow Tree.

"This tale about the bamboo is certainly hoary enough, and it lacks lively touches,

but Princess Kaguya remains unsullied by this world, and she aspires to such noble heights

that her story belongs to the age of the gods.

It is far beyond any woman with a shallow mind!" those of the Left declared.

The Right retorted that the heavens to which Princess Kaguya returned

were really too lofty to be within anyone's ken,

and that since her tie with earth involved bamboo, one gathered that she was in fact of contemptible birth. She lit up her own house, yes, but her light never shone beside the imperial radiance!

Abe no Oushi threw away thousands and thousands in gold,

and all he wanted from the fire rat's pelt vanished in a silly puff of smoke;

Prince Kuramochi, who knew all about Hōrai, ruined his own counterfeit jewelled branch.

These things, they claimed, marred the tale.

drawing of Kyoto from Ghibli Studio's Princess Kaguya


The Tale of Princess Kaguya by Ghibli Studios

Isao Takahata created a love letter to the era of beauty that centred around the Heian Kyoto court in the 10th and 11th century. His film, 'The Tale of the Princess Kaguya', expands the old story of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.

ukiyoe showing court ladies from The Tale of Genji

The animation is hand-drawn in pencil and watercolour, which brings a softness and sentimentality to the art. I love how my Masao Ebina print (above) from The Tale of Genji's 'The Picture Contest' chapter (in which, as we've seen, the courtiers discuss The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter) echoes the scene below from Ghibli's 'The Tale of the Princess Kaguya'.

The watercolour style of artwork is very similar, relying on the detail of patterns to enliven the pale washes of colour.

And notice the e-maki - picture scrolls - beautifully illustrated stories which relate the narrative as they are slowly unrolled from left to right!

Heian ladies looking at manuscripts

It is the most beautifully drawn film. I love the scenes of Kaguya-hime's early life growing up free and wild in the countryside with her friends (even if, in the original story, she is kept confined to the house!). But what fascinates me is how the Heian Kyoto court is depicted, especially how closely the buildings appear to be modelled on the Seiryōden, which is part of the Imperial Palace.

The Seiryōden was built in 1790, as a close recreation (although smaller in size) of the original Imperial Palace that was in a different location.

I visited the Imperial Palace buildings in the fall of 2016, and was very struck by the wooden walkways (watadono) and the standing curtains of the Seiryōden. I remember thinking that it wouldn't take too much imagination to believe you could hear the swish of the robes as the ladies softly moved along the wooden floors.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

the Emperor's private apartments the seiryoden

The Seiryōden, (pictured above), was the private apartment of the Emperor, where there were also areas for formal meetings too.

Ghibli's animation depicts the ox-carts which carried people of nobility, and details the accomplishments necessary to be considered a lady: Kaguya-hime learns the stringed koto, practises calligraphy, wears the many-layered juunihitoe, and is threatened with eyebrow plucking and teeth-blackening - very much the fashion!

We have a glimpse of the chaotic streets beyond the Palace gates, and of serene ceremonial events within the Court. We see how noblewomen of the time were shielded from the gaze of men behind bamboo screens, and how the lives of these women were often troubled and lonely.

Princess Kaguya and standing curtains

During her naming ceremony in this gorgeous Ghibli animation, Kaguya-hime wears a beautiful lilac blue outer robe as part of her juunihitoe, and it has inspired us to create a new colourway for our Kyoto-made Snowflower furoshiki - we are going to colour it in this shade of blue!

Princess Kaguya book on a table with cherry blossom

Yukki gave me this modern Japanese storybook version of Kaguya-hime, and the story follows the same arc as the traditional Tale. I love how the pattern on her juunihitoe is like a pattern we would find on our origami!

drawing of a girl with a furoshiki

We hope you have enjoyed reading our exploration of The Tale of Princess Kaguya,

and the centuries-old Japanese folktale that it is based on :)

You can watch the beautiful Ghibli animation on Netflix! We'd highly recommend it!

Thank you for reading!

Cathy and Yukki


drawing of Princess Kaguya

Princess Kaguya by Cathy x


Thank you to Ghibli Studios for the artwork stills from 'The Tale of Princess Kaguya'.

Murasaki Shikibu, (Royall Tyler trans.), The Tale of Genji, (Penguin Classics), p.325.

Haruo Shirane, 'Taketori Monogatari' ('The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter'),Traditional Japanese Literature, An Anthology: Beginnings to 1600, (Columbia University Press), pp.169-184.

Mount Fuji photo:


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