One of my favorite Japanese folk tales is “Taketori Monogatari,” or “the story of the Bamboo-Cutter.” It’s also sometimes called “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” or even “The Bamboo Princess.” I just recently learned that it’s considered to be one of (if not the) oldest existing Japanese narratives. But what always struck me about the story is how incredibly sci-fi it is. She might be called a princess, but it really seems to be a story about aliens.
The story begins with an old man, Taketori no Okina (bamboo-cutting old man), who just barely makes ends meet as a bamboo-cutter. One day in the bamboo grove he sees a strange, glowing stalk of bamboo (I’ve also heard it as a cluster of bamboo stalks, which is what I sketched above, but like all folk tales, it varies.) On cutting it open, he finds a beautiful, tiny little girl. He takes her home, and he and his wife decide to raise her, naming her “Kaguya-hime,” or “radiant night princess.”
Soon after this event, Taketori’s luck begins to change. He begins to find small nuggets of gold in the bamboo stalks. Over the years he grew rich, and the little princess grew to a strange woman of unusual and extraordinary beauty.
Rumors began to spread, and soon suitors from all over the land arrived to try to win her over. But she turned them all away, either by giving them impossible tasks to achieve (e.g., “bring me the pelt from the fire-mouse from China”) in hopes that they would all fail. They did. Even the emperor wanted her, but she turned him away saying she was “not from his country.” She really had no interest in fostering relationships with other humans.
The old couple began to notice that sadness was coming over Kaguya-hime. Night after night she would sit in the garden, looking at the moon. She began to act strangely, her behavior becoming unpredictable and erratic. Finally, she announced that she was not of that world, and she had to return to her people on the moon.
It’s not clear as to why she was sent to Earth. Maybe as a punishment for something, or maybe to keep her safe from some war that was going on in outer space. I was imagining that she was just a curious young alien exploring, and got lost. Maybe she crawled down a moonbeam into the grove one night, and couldn’t figure out how to get back up again?
Kaguya-hime contacted her people somehow and announced that she would soon be leaving. Of course, nobody wanted her to go, so an entourage of warriors was placed around her home. Finally, the day came. As the moon became full, the guards were overcome by a strange, dazzling light, and became bewildered, losing their will to fight. Creatures approached from within the light and draped a strange, feathered robe around Kaguya-hime’s shoulders, whereupon she completely forgot her sadness and lost all interest in her human family. Then she and the other moon-creatures ascended into the sky, never to be seen again.
The story wraps up with everyone at home missing her a lot and being sad, and people ascending the mountain “closest to heaven” (Mt Fuji, possibly) to burn notes in the hopes that the messages would reach her. But she never returned.
cue twilight zone music…
Why did you vanish
into the empty sky?
Even the fragile snow,
when it falls,
falls in this world.
The hunting lanterns on Mt. Ogura have gone,
the deer are calling for their mates…
How easily I might sleep if only I didn’t share their fears.
(Ono no Komachi translated by Watson)
Come quickly - as soon as
these blossoms open,
This world exists
as a sheen of dew on flowers.