Thoughts On: The Tale Of Princess Kaguya - Cosmos Princess


The Tale Of Princess Kaguya - Cosmos Princess

Thoughts On: The Tale Of Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫の物語, 2013)

A princess from the moon is sent down to earth and into the care of a bamboo cutter.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a purely astounding film, and quite possibly Takahata's very best. Stylistically in the same lane as My Neighbours The Yamadas, Princess Kaguya is a truly rare example of free mainstream animation. That is to say, the style is not locked down into an established aesthetic we see in a vast many other films. Takahata, as in The Yamadas, has a minimalist style that moves between the cartoon, the picturesque, the expressionist and the impressionist. These shifts in aesthetic are central to the diction of film language, and elevate the narrative beautifully, having us transition effortlessly between mythology, reality and subjectivity.

What strikes me most about Princess Kaguya is Takahata's attempt to do more than make a statement with his protagonist. As anyone can pick up on after seeing only one or two of Ghibli's films, the studio pivots around strong, complete and centralised female characters. There is a subtle honesty in the fact that Ghibli choose to do this, but do not focus their narratives on justifying the act. That is to say, you never get the sense that Ghibli are using their strong-female-character-trope for anything other than storytelling. So, though there is a statement made by this Ghibli trope, it often simply is what it is. Straying away from this custom, however, Takahata clearly wants to say something direct about femininity and women. Ghibli has done this indirectly, yet succinctly and profoundly, before with films such as Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind and Princess Mononoke. But, Princess Kaguya nonetheless stands out from these films by putting its core themes in the easily read text of the film through its depiction of women in Heian Japan.

The Heian period (794 to 1185) in Japan is often considered one of the major points at which Japanese culture was really born. (Here's a nice video on the subject). It was in this period that religion--Buddhism--and literature impacted, and were expressed like never before by, society (the aristocracy). To characterise this period, we can say it was incredibly aesthetic-centric; concerned with beauty. One of the more succinct aesthetic focuses of this period were women. The Tale of Princess Kaguya expresses this on multiple levels. Not only was the original story then likely written by a woman in this era, but the story itself (referencing Takahata's adaptation) precisely depicts customs of beauty that women obeyed and comments upon this with mythological feminine archetypes/symbols (e.g. the moon goddess/princess/child).

It is from this collision of historical context and theme that we find a way to access the riches of Princess Kaguya's narrative. In an attempt to glean something substantial from this film, I want to look at it through the lens of one scene:

This, in my view, is the most touching scene of the entirety of Princess Kaguya. It comes from early in the story, just after the elderly bamboo cutter finds a tiny princess in the forest he works who soon transforms into a baby. Above, we see the moment in which the local kids first see the princess and start calling her "Little Bamboo". The princess is amused by the children, but her adopted father doesn't seem to appreciate the nickname they give her, so he calls her back to him, repeatedly chanting, "Princess!". Consumed by a love, joy and affinity that only very young children can embody, the baby princess starts towards her father. Overjoyed, consumed by love, reduced--almost--to a young child himself, the elderly man rushes out to the baby and sweeps her up in his arms.

This sequence precedes a winding narrative centred on the subtext given by this exact moment. Here, the father does not just call his adopted baby "Princess" as a term of affection, but believes she is one. Given gifts by the Gods, the father is implored, and given the means, to turn this belief into a reality, to move to the city, buy a mansion, train the princess to be a noblewoman and find her a worthy husband. The central conflict of the film is, however, a question of: What does 'princess' mean?

It is very clear that, in the scene depicted, 'princess' is a loving word said from parent to daughter. Most of us would be very familiar with such an idea - a baby being a mother's and father's little princess - but there is a counterbalance provided by mythology in this tale. As Kaguya quickly learns, 'princess' also means duty and custom; wearing expensive clothes, remaining, for the vast majority of your time, isolated and on your knees, learning how to play an instrument and to write, not necessarily for the sake of art, but to achieve higher social status, blackening your teeth, plucking your eyebrows clean off, burying your real face underneath make-up, and, of course, marrying a stranger, one who only wants to possess you as he would a rare jewel. This dichotomous nature of 'princess' wears heavily upon Kaguya. As you could envision by considering saddling the list of 'duties and customs' yourself for a mere moment, there is an awful lot of suffering to be found in the life of the princess. Let us never forget, however, the profoundly pure love and affection captured by the term 'princess' here:

For Kaguya, 'princess' encapsulates the yin and the yang; the term is suffering and love, duty and devotion, collective and individual, male-centric and female-centric, oppressive order and freeing chaos, terrifying darkness and awe-inspiring light, etc. To attempt to situate 'princess' in the Buddhist context that hangs over this narrative, we can suggest that the term is her appointed dharma, 法 or hō. 'Princess' defines the ultimate rules of her reality (anointed, seemingly literally, by Buddha) and thus her path through life. To live out the dharma, she must perform her duties given by the world around her, but also fulfil her own personal calling; the will of the universe is both within and around the individual. Kaguya's duties are clear. Her calling is here:

Here is devout love. Here is her home in nature, her home without much money at all, her friends, her family, her freedom. This is what calls out to Kaguya. But, it is in direct conflict with the duty-bound world of a princess in Heian Japan.

Such ideas, and considering the role Kaguya plays a princess from the moon, all conjure up one expressive word in my mind: cosmos. This is a word given to us by the Greeks. In ancient Greek kosmos meant a few things, most principal, however, kosmos meant 'world, order and adorn'. This fascinating collage of concepts connotes something seemingly characteristic of ancient philosophies and religions of the East. For 'cosmos' to simultaneously be the reality around us (world), structured and almost systematically self-conscious (order), and beauty (adorn), has us thinking again of dharma. Dharma is order itself - it is akin to Logos - it is given by the structure of reality and its being is directly linked with the potentially profound and awe-inspiring beauty of being. It seems uncoincidental that diversely different cultures would come upon this conception of being as beautiful, orderly reality.

What drives my association of 'cosmos' with Princess Kaguya is not just the philosophy of being that it implies. A word descendent of kosmos, via French, is 'cosmetics'. Take a moment to ask yourself this: What has the universe got to do with make-up?

In my view, aesthetics are a manifestation of the Jungian Eros. That is to say that art and beauty are bound to the feminine wholeness of nature both within and around us. The reason for this seems to be that, buried deep into human history, is a dichotomy of exploration and preservation.

The natural world around humans exists upon a spectrum of the known and the unknown. The ultimate 'knowns' are our deepest held beliefs of object truth. The ultimate 'unknowns' are transcendent of conception. Humans must grapple with both; the Logos is concerned more with the exploration of the transcendent and Eros preserving the known. The Eros consumes most of art as it is mimetic; an imitation of life. Art gains a path towards the transcendent, via Logos, as a result of memesis; art gathers what an individual and collective know about themselves before pushing deeper to ask of the transcendent beyond. Art very rarely (never in my view) travels in the opposite direction, from transcendence to reality, Logos to Eros. For art to be of the Logos, it would come directly from the ultimate unknown, and thus we arrive at holy texts seen to be the literal Word of God. In my view, stories are human. They bear a relationship with the transcendent and may ultimately stem from it. But, if we create art - which I believe we do - we create it with Eros; we glean from experience and collective history more than we accept gifts of God as we write, paint, dance, act, etc.

Because we, males and females, have evolved playing the roles of Logos and Eros, the explorer and the preserver, order and the domain, the concept of the whole, of nature, of love and care, have been held primarily by female hands. Moreover, the aesthetic and the feminine have become profoundly akin.

The domain is; nature is. The explorer who attempts to order the domain is within. The domain does not need the explorer beyond maybe a desire to be realised and known - to not be a tree falling in a dark, empty forest. The explorer cannot be without the domain. What binds them after they meet are the senses: perception. If an explorer cannot see, the explorer cannot explore. If the domain cannot be sensed, it contains nothing.

I note all of this so we can now bridge the gap between domain and explorer and cosmos and cosmetic. In ancient Greek aisthetikos meant perception and perceptible. It is from aisthetikos that we get 'aesthetic'. An endlessly fascinating turn of events.

For the domain and the explorer to bond, there must be perception. And from the act of perceiving, from being and exploring, comes beauty. Perception is aesthetic, to sense the world is to realise beauty. Being: world. Perception: order. Exploration: adorn. Cosmos. The cosmos is everything here and it is the transcendent, it is Eros and Logos. The cosmos' being only matters when the nutritious pressure of the unknown supports it. The Eros is. The Logos supports/nurtures. The supported/nurtured face of reality is one doused in cosmetics; it is sensory and aesthetic.

Make-up is a creation of male meeting female, and it is simultaneously a manifestation of the existence of male and female. It is not just created, and it is not just inherently existent - it is both. Make-up is both a social construct and a ritual with meaning that transcends meagre human tinkering. Principally, make-up is the Eros in the cosmos, it is unifying magnetism, wholeness, ordered, awe-inspiring. There is a touch of Logos in make-up that should not be overlooked; make-up is an embellishment of the cosmos as is, it is an act of aesthetic and perception. If the balance between Eros and Logos is true, cosmetics enhance the world; they make the world a more aesthetic - not necessarily a more beautiful - place. And of course, make-up is both literal and metaphorical here. Cosmetics are, more broadly, restorative or enhancing entities for the personal appearance. There is greater depth, then, if we choose to see cosmetics as self-awareness, as the construction of the aesthetic human and the aesthetic human world, as the turning of perception onto ourselves and our creations.

It seems, now, that we have a source for the profound meaning behind 'princess' as duty and custom. The princess, in search of her prince and under the guidance and nurture of the king (who in turn has a queen), is an agent of harmony - all because she aligns herself with the Logos-Eros state of the universe through self-sacrifice. Ritual and cosmetics are one and the same in this web of schema, and they breath aesthetic into harmony, lifting something more than functionality out of reality and unleashing the potential of self-consciousness.

However, let us not overlook the criticism of Takahata and the warnings of psychoanalysts such as Jung when dealing with this subject. Princess Kaguya faces undue suffering, reduced to a mere possession by custom, made voiceless and a false idol by duty. Her cosmetic make-over is not a ritual of the balance between male and female, Eros and Logos. It is weighted towards the male and so denies the Eros her own self-consciousness; it gives her self-consciousness, it gives her a form of shame. Her individual will is thus taken from her, and when the will of an individual is beaten down as such, the world suffers from corruption; all aesthetic values are lost. It is true that the individual's journey is quite separate from the agents of suffering that confront them. The tale of Christ is not a story about the evils of men, the tale of Buddha is not about the pain of the asceticism, the tale of Kaguya is not about oppressive chauvinism - despite these tales, and many alike, containing much suffering. Nonetheless, we can see these tales to shed some light on the nature of suffering and formulate a perspective on corruption, pain and evil. That is to say that, though a story's emphasis may be on the individual journey with the conflict they're confronted by being a tool for growth or a means of revelation, not criticism for criticism's sake, a story is not whole without such criticism.

The oppressive male forces of Princess Kaguya indicate that not all cosmetics are equal, that the assumed Logos isn't always genuine, that the explorer can become a plunderer. Jung may then describe the discord between what Kaguya wants and what the men of this film demand to be a product of anima projection: the men forcing upon women their idea of Eros instead of letting the women simply be who they are. In my view, this is why this scene is such an important and touching one...

As the bamboo cutter hugs his princess, there is no anima projection; she is a baby, and she loves her father, he is a man, and he loves his daughter. The two recognise one another's human aesthetic, their existential adornment and their individual beauty, and thus there is harmony. The cosmos aligns. Herein we have the seeds of unconditional devotion and the ultimate reason why the father does all he can for his daughter. Though he may make mistakes as she grows up, their pure bond is crystallised eternally in this embrace.

As Kaguya grows, she attempts to shoulder her own duties - their aesthetic and importance. However, she is deprived of devotion, her personal sovereignty and natural freedom. The cosmos falls out of alignment. This is the story of a girl struggling to become a woman. For a little girl, a baby, and her parent, harmony is achieved so easily due to the intensity of magnetism between the parent-child; it is so easy to see one as the other, two as the same. For a girl to become a woman, the parent-bond must be weakened, but the respect of the individual on either end must remain. The two can still - and should still - be seen as the same, as individual humans, equal in essence, even though they walk separate paths in separate bodies. It is difficult to see such a bond destroyed, to see a person reborn, to be reborn yourself, and to preserve the harmony of the singularity that preceded the current duality. Such is merely one struggle of life, but it is worth living for.

Watching the story of Princess Kaguya unfold along the lines of these numerous ideas, leaves the ending a tragedy. The Eros of the universe sweeps femininity back into its embrace. Princess Kaguya returns to the moon. The story ends before harmony is achieved and the cosmos is allowed to be brought into alignment. Consequently, the tears she sheds for what is never given a chance of being, for what she leaves behind, the princess in a mansion, the princess in a father's arms, love and pain on earth, are palpable.

This beautiful orchestration of depth and character leaves Princess Kaguya one of Ghibli's greatest treasures. But, I don't believe that I have teased everything out of this film, so I'll leave things with you. Have you seen The Tale of Princess Kaguya? What are your thoughts on all we've covered today?

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