THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA || NIRVANA AS A STATE OF COMPLETE DEATH

Background History : Sutemaru, the Bamboo Cutter and people of the village constituted a large part of the agriculture workforce of medieval Japan, defined as the Shoen. Shoen refers to any private estates which are not taxed, and comprised of small villages that were self governing perhaps, and they amassed prosperity. The lack of enclosing on the wealth of these estates, gave wealth and ultimately power to clans that surpassed the power of the emperor. And may have contributed to rise of the Warring States Period of Japan, in the 15th century Sengoku period.

To achieve nirvana is to attain eternal release from the karmic cycle and from suffering. To reduce suffering according to a Buddhist perspective, one must understand three characteristics that all sentient beings share :

Dukka – Suffering

Annica – Impermanence

Annata – Non-self

In the version of Ghibli’s Tale of Princess Kaguya.

Defying the laws of the moon, the celestial princess Kaguya descends upon the earth. A song that she heard in nirvana made her pine for something that the blandness of the moon could not manifest, leading to her descent into the mortal realm. And so, for her respite, the memory of her seraphic nature was wiped out.

Sanuki No Miyatsuko, A bamboo cutter working amongst the reeds, found a warm light emanating from a stalk, and as he neared towards it, he found a bamboo shoot that sprouted before its plum flower. Then the bamboo shoot enlarged and towered above to unfurl layers and layers of petals that resembled one of a golden lotus banana, and sitting upon it was a divine entity with eyes resting in peaceful contemplation.

Golden Lotus Banana is a common plant grown around buddhist temples

In awe, the bamboo cutter showed his respects and wondered to what honour does he owe to this entity. Kaguya eyes gleamed at him, and Miyatsuko asked who she was, to which she responded with a smile. Kaguya was barely the size of a palm and looked similar to a nymph.

The bamboo cutter deduced that the heavens had bestowed him with the responsibility to raise Kaguya. He brought Kaguya home to his wife, who became stunned. The father believed that Kaguya was given to them as a blessing from the heavens, as they had no child formerly. But he believed that the heavens had granted solely him the responsibility of raising her up, and because she is a princess, she must be of noble origin and deserves to be treated so. Only in the Bamboo Cutter’s Wife hands, did the nymph stretch and transformed into a human baby, who made its first cries.

Crying, perhaps in this instance, is symbolic of entering the world knowing that there is suffering to endure, perhaps consistent with Dukka. As the Bamboo Cutter’s wife, comforted Kaguya’s cries and in her hands, the nymph turned into a baby, the wife believed that Kaguya had wanted to raise her up. So they rejoiced in their content of raising Kaguya. But the father, driven by worldly and material pursuits, believed that providence granted him the authority to give Kaguya a life of nobility, as she is of divinity.

Because of Kaguya’s perceived uniqueness, the father questions whether she is meant for a mundane life amongst the current one she lives with village people. The father is convinced that Kaguya must reclaim her nobility and live above the peasantries associated with the lives of Sutemaru and the village boys.

Kaguya matures in every encounter with danger. In one instance that demonstrates this, Kaguya wanders from the bamboo forest and finds baby boars and greets them. However, an angry mother boar came charging towards her, but before it could make contact with her, Sutemaru lunged towards her to push her out of the way of the charging boar. And Kaguya grows once again.

As Kaguya had left the bamboo forest where her father was working, the father realised that Kaguya had been missing. And in distress, he calls out her name only to find himself amongst the bamboo reeds surrounded by a strange orange glow compared to his first encounter with Kaguya, where the bamboo forest was grey.


Then he finds another light emanating from one bamboo stalk, which he ventures curiously towards and cuts, finding gold inside. From this point, heaven bestowed material wealth to the bamboo cutter, adding to his conviction that Kaguya must have a different fate to peasants in the rural countryside.

Miyatsuko’s fixation on achieving higher ranks amongst the hierarchy, such as his belief that Kaguya’s obedience could grant him a courtier’s cap, and thus happiness, marks the end of Kaguya’s childlike wonder to become usurped by the worldly affairs of status and power.

Originally the Tale of Princess Kaguya was called the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, which originated from the Heian period, in 9th century Japan. The anime gives a glimpse into the hierarchy of which the court is divided into ten ranks with the emperor of Japan at the top.

The renaming of the tale into one centred around the Bamboo Princess redefines the story to be sympathetic to Kaguya than necessarily the father who raised her up. This may allude that Kaguya is agent of this narrative, and Takahata Isao [the co-director of the Tale of Princess Kaguya] perhaps intends to uncover the common trope of duty to ones parents, to reveal the tensions of duty implicated upon the pursuit of a noble life; which becomes entrenched the more cultured one becomes, ultimately leading to Kaguya’s demise.

The impermanence that exists in Kaguya’s life is orchestrated by the movement from the village towards the dwellings of the aristocracy, her wonder that bends towards the lacklusterness in her eyes, her yearning of her village life to her loathing of her newfound life.

Perhaps Kaguya suffers because her attachments to her village life, her friends and Sutemaru, made her comprise a sense of identity because they remind her of who she is because of them. But because of the impermanence of relationships, and movements that accompany life, suffering is inevitable.

However the Tale of Princess Kaguya, portrays the heavens as being one of complete death, as when Kaguya leaves, she loses her memory and the attachments she has with others, which comprise of her identity in the mortal realm.

It is a commentary on how the tabula rasa of nirvana is incomparable to the rasa that exists in the mortal realm. That to feel is to be mortal, and in a way being finite gives meaning. But to be unformed and divine is to not have meaning or purpose.

Birds, bugs, beasts, grass, trees, flowers

Flower, bear fruit, and die

Be born, grow up, and die

Still the wind blows, the rain falls

The waterwheel goes round

Lifetimes come and go in turn

Go round, come round, come round, O distant time

Come round, call back my heart

Birds, bugs, beasts, grass, trees, flowers

Teach me how to feel

If I hear that you pine for me, I will return to you

Warabe Uta

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