The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, translated by Donald Keene

Published 1998
Review by Tim

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is the oldest surviving work of fiction in the Japanese language. The precise date is unknown, but it is reckoned to have been written no later than the 9th or early 10th century. It is a fairy tale that begins when an old man notices a light shining from a stalk of bamboo. He looks within the stem to find a diminutive little girl, whom he and his wife raise as their own. The child grows into a woman of surpassing loveliness. Her name is Nayotake no Kaguya-hime, the Shining Princess of Supple Bamboo, and she holds in her heart a secret. The tale is told with charm and humor, but the overall tone is sad, and the story ends in grief.

Within the story are plot elements familiar in legends and tales throughout the world. Kaguya-hime attracts large numbers of unwelcome suitors; the five most persistent are assigned fantastic and impossible quests to perform in order to prove their devotion. The first suitor is told to obtain the original stone begging bowl of Buddah. This quest, which would take him to India on a long and probably fruitless search, lacks appeal, and he unsuccessfully tries to hoodwink her with a counterfeit. The second suitor is told to obtain a jewelled branch from a tree on the island of Paradise; he also tries to foist a counterfeit upon the princess, and with greater success. Kaguya-hime is much disconcerted, for she truly wishes to wed none of these importunate suitors. Fortunately, in the midst of the second suitor's moving descriptions of the hardships he had undergone, the artisans who had crafted the branch for him arrive demanding to be paid for their work! The remaining three suitors try to complete their quests in good faith, but have no greater success than had the frauds.

I am reminded of the Greek myth of Atalanta, who promised to wed the suitor who could best her in a foot race, losing challengers to forfeit their lives. There is also the task Penelope required of her would-be suitors in the Odyssey, vowing to wed only that man who could string the bow of Odysseus, and equal his feat of threading the rings of twelve axe-heads set in a row with a single arrow. Of course, these tasks were eventually completed, to the consequent happiness of all of the principals, while the quests of the suitors seemed doomed to failure from their inception.

Eventually we learn the wonderful, tragic secret that prevents Kaguya-hime from accepting a suitor, or living happily with her foster parents. She is one of a race of godlike folk who live upon the moon. For a certain term she was doomed to dwell below on earth, and that term is coming to an end. Her parents are distraught at the prospect, as is Kaguya-hime herself, for she has formed a close attachment to them during her 20 year term on the earth. Measures are taken to avert this doom, all to no avail. The moon-folk put upon Kaguya-hime a robe of feathers that causes her to forget her grief, and take her away with them in a flying chariot. Her bereft parents eventually die of heartbreak.

I recently discovered this story for the first time while exploring a local bookstore, shelved with works by the Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972). It was published just this year by Kodansha International, and combines a translation into modern Japanese by Kawabata, an English translation by Donald Keene (1922- ), and a number of enchanting illustrations by Masayuki Miyata (1926-1997). Miyata used a technique called kirie, creating his illustrations with cut-out pieces of paper. The effect is at once graceful and stylized, and reminds me somewhat of the work of Aubrey Beardsley. Apart from the tale itself, the book is worth reading for the beauty of its illustrations.

October, 1998