Princess Kaguya, and “Not of This World” Narratives

I recently had the privilege of seeing a special screening of the film The Tale of Princess Kaguya with a friend in the theater, and it helped me process the tension I feel with the concept of ignorance as bliss.

Based on a Japanese folktale, the film features a celestial little girl who is seemingly born of bamboo and adopted joyfully into a humble human life in the mountains. Despite her magical ability to grow fast (“like bamboo!”), Ghibli gives her life the same lightness and depth as any. Despite this quirk, her childhood is seen like any other, with high moments and slow moments, with small victories that mean the world.

I’ve been contemplating what it means to be present like that.

As a child, I often imagined mystical backstories akin to the changeling/demigod/otherworldly princess tales. I held these stories, so that in times of pain I could remind myself “earthly” life was temporary. It’s not so different from anyone else escaping into movies for nostalgia, or going to church for some hope (except, I guess church is where you would center yourself a little less). And a little transcendent imagination is not bad, nor immature, nor selfish of us. There is this human need for narrative, so that the world makes a little more sense, so that we have the bravery to go out and live in it again instead of cowering all our lives.

Princess Kaguya embraces her narrative here and now despite not knowing where her life is going. As a child she sings wistfully about the promise of returning to wherever she came from, but we quickly see that she’s in no hurry. She lives each moment to the fullest, hands climbing in the dirt, mouth sticky from devouring summer melons, bare skin slipping into mountain spring water. She lives her life fully present, authentic, and embodied. Even when life takes a turn where she is increasingly suppressed to become a proper noble lady, she insists on authenticity rather than losing her soul to being proper.

Tragically, she is increasingly confined to a world that doesn’t give her a choice. As she comes of age, suddenly play and humor are considered improper now that she is a woman, and even laughter in her own mansion is considered inappropriate.

And yet, she asserts that surely a princess must express her full range of emotion, or else “a princess is not human.” Her assertion doesn’t come from a place of entitled superiority, or any mention of her magical identity. Her desire is simply to be treated as a human.

Here’s a phrase you might have heard often in protestant Christian circles: be in this world, not of it. Be aware of the world, but don’t love it. I used to romanticize the “not of this world” narrative very often.

Here’s the thing: you are allowed to have more than one narrative, happening at the same time. You are allowed to contain multitudes.

You are allowed to have both gratitude and depression. You are allowed to be magical in your vision and realistic in your approach. You are allowed to feel nothing, and consider that one of the various shades of feeling everything. You are allowed to be both joyful long-term and sad in times that feel like forever. You are allowed to be feminine and also angry at a world that would give you no choice. You are allowed to be a prince/ss, Child of God, waiting on heaven, and demand basic human rights in the one life you live here and now, just for being human.

Love of organic life on earth does not equal idolatry of one identity over another. (So yes, queer Christians exist. And they’re no less Christian for wanting the same fullness of life as anyone else gets to enjoy).

“My kingdom is not of this world” is still one of my favorite sayings from Jesus, but I think the verse has been often skewed from its original meaning. What once was said to contrast the kingdom of God with cruel, unjust systems of power (and the feared finality of unjust death), is now shortened to a phrase tossed around to mean don’t care too much, it’s all temporary except the holy ones.

Princess Kaguya, even when adapted to a stricter and reserved way of life, still holds her free thoughts and self-worth. Not as someone superior to others, but equally entitled to a choice in her future. She sends overly flattering suitors off on impossible quests, refusing to marry anyone untrue to his word, holding no value for empty praise. In fact, she is quite content without even the thought of marriage, though her soul longs for her humble, rowdy, earthly community of friends. The thought of her future being exclusive rather than inclusive deprives her spirit wholeheartedly.

Whether this is because of her supernatural origin, or because she simply thinks differently than societal norms, she is living in this world, not of it.

And at the same time, she is of this world. She is embodied. She is befriended. She embraces these mortal humans, this fleeting human condition. Kaguya holds some similarities with the figure of Jesus Christ in this way: Jesus Himself ate, drank, slept on a rocking boat, told stories to hint at where he came from, retreated from empty fans, celebrated flowers and wine, questioned authority, wept, mourned, grew emotional, befriended outcasts, prioritized platonic love by choice—and for all He meant to everyone, probably was gone too quick.

Fairy tale writer Elizabeth Hopkinson, who reads Kaguya as an asexual character and wrote a lovely retelling in Asexual Fairy Tales, says: “‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’ illustrates the tragic consequences of family and friends failing to understand a person’s identity.” When we are only allowed one narrative, and given no choice in the matter, our wholeness suffers. For Kaguya, being made only the image of a princess deprives her of her natural childlike penchant for exploration, and joy. (You could say for Jesus, the expectation to be only miraculous for people sometimes deprived him of the energy to be known as a literal down-to-earth friend, a lover of humanity. More tragically, on the other hand, the fear of his miraculous identity had some consequences, too.) The tragedy is not in people having other identities, but in being forced to choose between them.

As Princess Kaguya’s depression intensifies, she is pushed to the point where she cries out that she doesn’t want to be here anymore. Moments later, she immediately regrets her wish, and digs her hands and feet into her life on earth, the water, the sky, begging for one more day of human life. This, to me, illustrates her nature of deep down, always loving life, and wishing she weren’t deprived of the fullness of it while still living. A part of her had already died when her authenticity was being suppressed; but a part of her yearns to stay on earth to watch the seasons change.

And in perhaps the most saddening moment of happy music in the history of Ghibli media, her otherworldly people come to take her away.

In their blissful parade, the celestial beings are ignorant of the grief caused on earth. Kaguya is told to leave this impure world behind, and that she won’t even miss her family where she’s going. At that remark, she stands before Buddha himself and argues, “It’s not impure! There is joy; there is grief. Everyone who lives here feels them in all their different shades.” 

In her brief (but so full) life on earth, Kaguya affirms the fleeting, fragile life on earth as unique, even in its seasons of sorrow. Even at her most depressed, she realizes that she will miss this life when she leaves it. Even at her most suppressed and silenced as a “proper” noble lady, she affirms that her life and memories have unique meaning. Even before celestial beings themselves, she asserts that feeling passion and empathy for a mortal world is worth it, and fights the notion that “purity” from emotional attachment is all that enviable.

She holds the act of longing for a simpler world, and loving the complex world she’s in, simultaneously. She is in the world, and by adoption, she is of it.

And she is also not of this world. All this can happen at the same time.

May we understand our own multiplicities, and honor the multiplicities in one another. May we never be the reason anyone finds themselves so homeless on earth that they go Home too soon. May we love this world in our brief time, redefine purity, and be taught how to feel.

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