Film in review – “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”

TheTaleofThePrincessKaguya_US_posterThe first impression is that this is really a visually stunning film. The artwork is incredible, as if you’re constantly watching some really accomplished watercolor artist work continuously on the backdrops, with charcoal artistry animating the characters. Though it’s a long film (137 minutes), the technique never ceases to amaze and fascinate.

The story is itself also amazing and fascinating, not just because of its uniqueness and originality (though it’s “based on an old Japanese folk tale”), but because of its obvious intersections with incarnational Christianity.

Once, long ago, there was a bamboo cutter who lived near a bamboo forest in a simple little house with his wife. They couldn’t have any children and were saddened by that, but they loved each other and enjoyed being together every day. They lived out in the country where there were some other villagers, but some distance from the capital city.

One day something startling happens in the forest. The bamboo cutter sees a stalk of bamboo glowing, as if lit from the inside. Then, suddenly, a new bamboo shoot appears out of the ground, then, a little doll-like figurine suddenly sprouts of the bamboo shoot… and she’s alive and breathing!

The woodcutter excitedly takes the tiny figurine home – he can hold it in the palm of his hand – and his wife, seeing with excitement that the little doll is alive, experiences such an awakening of her maternal instincts that suddenly she is able to produce breast milk to feed the baby.

The baby grows very, very rapidly. Soon she is standing, then walking, then talking – all in a matter of days. Her parents are astounded about this, but accept it quietly because their princess is, after all, a gift from heaven.

Soon she wants to play with the other boys and girls in the neighborhood. She especially enjoys being outdoors with them and playing in the sunshine. Somehow she already knows how to swim. Somehow she already knows a song that the children keep singing, about taking joy in the birds and the flowers and the trees. She’s a gentle, happy child and she brings great joy to her parents.

But they make the mistake of believing that she would be happier if she became a “real” princess, that is, was set up in the capital city with a big mansion, so she could entertain princes as proper suitors. Her parents spend all their resources building the big house in the city for her, and they leave their quiet little home in the country that she loved so much. The princess does her best to try to adapt to their wishes, even submitting to lessons in how to behave like a princess. Here, she is instructed to quit running, stop playing, stop singing and just sit quietly and act dignified. For activity, she can weave at the loom. But she is to suppress emotion, especially exuberance. Not to mention pluck her eyebrows and blacken her teeth, because that makes her more beautiful.

So there she is, dressed all in silk and in the prime of her life, but she is miserable.

The suitors indeed come calling, but she isn’t really interested in any of them. Instead, she sends them on impossible quests (like bringing her the bowl from the Buddha) to get them out of the way. Even His Royal Highness comes calling, but he turns out to be an arrogant bore who merely wants her for a another plaything, like a palace courtesan, and he is simply amazed that not everyone wants to do his bidding.

Our princess is so miserable that she finally calls out to her Moon People, from which she came, to let her come back. Though she regrets making her parents unhappy by leaving them, still, she’s ready to return, except for one last vision/dream: a soaring romp in her old playground with her best childhood friend, now grown with a family of his own. (This time it’s Peter Pan who’s all grown up, not Wendy.)

The reason for her becoming human in the first place? She wanted to experience what the humans did, before returning to her Moon World in the sky. She wanted to become one of them in order to feel and think as they did. And she did, indeed, experience it all, including being celebrated as a unique person with special abilities, then misunderstood, and finally disappearing by ascending to the heavens. The analogies are obvious, but the most intriguing question is still Anselm’s in “Cur Deus Homo?” Why?


Ronald P. Salfen is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.