Yet another movie where Mifune Toshirō does not wield a sword. Except this time, it is because it takes place before the age of the Samurai, not after.
It is a bit of an odd way to start with that jazz piece playing in the background of the actual musical score, which itself is kind of odd. But the overlaying text says that the story being told could have happened today, in this year of…1987. And with that out of the way, the movie takes us to…let’s say a thousand years ago.
The movie opens on a pretty busy town street, or the tenth-century equivalent of a town street. The denizens are going about their business when a group of men holding a palanquin run down the main street, yelling at the people to make way for the high priest. Actually, it is not really a palanquin, as there are wheels and the men are actually guiding the bull that is doing the pulling. I don’t know if the distinction is all that important to the people scurrying to the sides to avoid getting gored by the bull. Inside, the high priest tells the men to hurry and run over any “vermin” who is in the way. They almost do run over an elderly woman who falls down while trying to get away, and a man has to run out to rescue her. Where is this jerk priest even going?
Far away from the town, Uda the merchant walks through the fields and forest to get to an isolated house where the bamboo ware maker and his wife live. He stops outside the door and says that he has come to buy their goods. No one answers, so he opens the door to look inside. He sees no one and it is all dark. He turns around to leave and that is when the wife appears. With tears in her eyes, she tells him to go home, as they have nothing to sell. And then she shuts the door in his face.
Uda sees the bamboo ware maker outside doing something by the creek and looking surly. Uda asks what happened. The bamboo ware maker tells him that their five-year-old daughter, Kaya, died of illness yesterday. Jeez. Well, yeah, that would do it. Wait…five? How old is this guy that he had a five…anyways, Uda says that he must be devastated and then in the same breath expresses hope that he will return to work soon, as his bamboo work and his wife’s cloth sell well in town. Dude, just let them be. The ware maker responds that Uda should pay them more. Uda laughs without agreeing, says that he will return, and then finally leaves.
The bam…okay, I am just going to call him Taketori, even though that is only kind of his name. Taketori goes inside and lights a fire. But his wife, Tayoshime, would rather sit in the dark, wondering why Kaya had to die. Is it because they were too poor to afford a doctor? Taketori tells her to stop thinking about their situation, as it will not help Kaya now. But Tayoshime cannot stop. Kaya came into their lives just when she had given up on having children. And now Kaya is gone.
Note: Wakao Ayako, who played Tayoshime, was around 53 at the time, while Mifune Toshirō as Taketori was around 65 or 66. Anyways…MOON!
Taketori is eating his meal and tells Tayoshime to join him, but she is still pacing back and forth saying that she wishes that she had died instead of Kaya. Taketori tells her once again to stop thinking about that. A charitable interpretation of his reactions would be that he is simply in denial and has shut down his emotions. But…the kid who died YESTERDAY was also his. The tenth century was a different time indeed. Anyways, a loud noise and bright light from outside startle them both. And then a huge boom that shakes the ground.
Taketori says that it is not safe inside and pulls Tayoshime out of the house. They see what looks like a fire in the forest near Kaya’s grave. Tayoshime tries to run to it, but Taketori pulls her back. He is more concerned that the fire will destroy the forest and put him out of work.
So…he walks over to where the fire is…or was. The forest seems fine and Kaya’s grave looks to be untouched. Taketori thanks her for saving the forest and is about to say a prayer when he notices something nearby. It looks like a carved rock, but there is a light at the top…a light that is emitting sound. And a thingamee that reaches right to Kaya’s grave. What the hell is that?
Part of the rock breaks open, scaring an already frightened Taketori. The opening reveals…a strange-looking baby?
With his curiosity finally overtaking his terror, Taketori walks toward the…whatever it is. An abandoned child? Well, he cannot simply leave it there, but he cannot afford to raise someone else’s child. So he will take it home and then bring it to the village master the next day. It is hot and very heavy, but he picks it up.
Taketori is walking home when he drops the…thing. He goes to pick it up when he sees the baby crawling out of it. And the baby starts to age rapidly before his eyes, until she looks just like Kaya…well, except for one difference.
Meanwhile, the man from the beginning of the movie is walking through what looks like a non-bamboo part of the forest. The fire certainly destroyed this area. He walks a little further to see a big crater, and a group of men already there trying to figure out what happened to the shrine there.
Tayoshime is…washing some vegetables by the creek when Taketori returns…with the girl. And…when did she get clothes? Well, perhaps it is for the best. Anyways. Tayoshime sees her as Kaya as well. Overjoyed, she runs to embrace the girl, taking no notice of her stiff mannerisms or her piercing blue eyes. Taketori…tries to explain what happened in a way that almost makes sense, but Tayoshime is barely listening. When Taketori points out that Kaya had dark eyes and did not carry that weird crystal ball around, Tayoshime reasons that this girl must be heaven’s to them in their time of grief, and that they should treat her as if she were Kaya anyways.
At some point, Kaya 2.0 meets the village kids, who call her the ghost of Kaya because of her blue eyes. Kaya tries to smile, which one of the kids interprets as her laughing at them. So…he throws a rock at her face? She starts to bleed from her forehead, but then she puts her hand in front of her head and the wound is gone along with the blood. She picks up the rock and hits the kid in the eye.
Sometime later, Kaya walks over to a bird that a man had just shot with an arrow. She rubs the back of the bird, which results in the arrow going back out, the fatal wound healing up, and the bird flying away.
The men of the village complain to Taketori. Your kid hit my son in the head. She let the bird loose. Taketori and Tayoshime have to bow down deep in apology while Kaya stands awkwardly behind them. One of the men remarks on her having been ill, theorizing that she must have contracted a case of the evil spirits. Perhaps it is her fault that the shrine was destroyed.
After the men leave, Taketori pouts about always having to apologize for things that Kaya did. Tayoshime is not concerned about that, as long as the villagers believe that the girl is Kaya…and even Taketori referred to her as such. Taketori protests, but Tayoshime prefers to believe.
Taketori gives Uda a piece of that egg thingamee to sell to a blacksmith…who figures out that underneath that gunk is pure gold.
Uda goes back to Taketori and dumps a bagful of coins into his hands. Could have just given him the bag. He tells Taketori that is gold and asks if he has any more.
Taketori runs back home and looks for what he calls the cradle. Tayoshime, who is back to work making cloth, reminds him that he threw it into the trash pit. So he digs through the pit until he finds it and gleefully declares to a confused Tayoshime that it will lift them out of poverty. While Tayoshime may consider the girl to be heaven’s gift to them, Taketori says this gold is heaven’s gift.
Sudden story shift brings us to…the Emperor? AFujiwara Okuni is relaying a report by his spy – the man from the beginning of the movie – about the disaster the other night, where a giant fireball created a massive hole in a hill. Attempts to figure out whether this incident has precedent almost devolves into bickering between members of the imperial court when a Councilor Otomo interrupts them to mention a sudden mysterious appearance of gold in the market over the past three days. This gets the Emperor’s attention, and he asks the curtain obscuring him from the court to be lifted. Otomo says that its extreme purity means that it is of foreign origin. Pontiff Donson, the high priest from the beginning who was willing to run over the peasants, reasons that a foreigner has arrived. The Emperor agrees. He claims that he has no interest in gold itself, but it determines a nation’s fate, and that a sudden influx could upend the nation. He does not mention that his own rule could be threatened by a wealthy foreigner throwing his weight around, but I guess that he does not have to. In any case, he says that they must track down the gold and confiscate it all…for the safety of the nation, of course.
Tayoshime goes to town to bring some cloth to Uda. After a bit of chit chat, Uda asks about…the stuff. Apparently, Taketori brings him only a little at a time. Tayoshime claims to know nothing about that.
Just as Uda said, Taketori is in town getting drunk. While he scoffs at her continuing to work, she asks him to stop doing shady deals with Uda. Taketori reminds her that she had complained about them being poor, but she insists that this is different.
With that dispute unresolved, the two return home to find…a young woman in their house. Taketori apologizes, assuming that they went to the wrong house. He pushes Tayoshime back outside, but the woman follows them. She tells them that she is Kaya. Taketori does not believe it, but Tayoshime is overjoyed that she has finally spoken. Of course she is Kaya, but Kaya grown into maturity. Yeah, makes perfect sense. Taketori tries to logic his way out of this, but no. Tayoshime picks up that Kaya herself does not understand what is going on with her or where she comes from, but this must be heaven’s grace again. Well, this woman is definitely the same girl, with her generally emotionless face.
Fujiwara visits the home of the spy and his wife. The spy tells him that the disaster on the hill is related to the sudden influx of gold, as he has observed a seemingly humble man spending a lot of money at the market. A man who lives near the site of the disaster. Fujiwara asks whether that could be a coincidence, but the spy says no. He also notes that man has a daughter who does not look like a normal mountain village girl. And, finally, notes that the man, his wife, and the mysterious daughter suddenly left.
So where did they go?
It seems like this giant house was built very quickly, as people crowd around the outside, climb the trees, and climb the walls to get a peek inside. Or maybe, as an annoyed Taketori states, they all just want to get a look at Kaya. Tayoshime says that neither she nor Kaya mind them. Changing subject, Taketori asks her why she is still making cloth when she no longer needs to (or should) work anymore. He says that they needed to move far away from the village due to their sudden wealth and Kaya’s…erm…growth spurt. Acting like they had before would simply arouse suspicion. And additionally, many local noblemen and their friends have country houses here. If they marry of Kaya to a nobleman, then they will be respected as her parents. Ah, so it is not enough for Taketori to be ludicrously wealthy; he has to become part of the upper class and Kaya is his ticket in. Tayoshime dislikes this idea, as Kaya is not a normal girl. Taketori argues that it is their duty to give her normal happiness…as if he ever really cared about her happiness. And Tayoshime calls him out on it, and points out that he had not noticed that Kaya has been gazing at her crystal ball all day long.
Well, news of Kaya’s beauty has reached some of the high class neighbors. Chamberlain Abe from the imperial court is visiting a Master Minimashi to get a look at her. He is skeptical of the reports, believing them to be from peasants without standards. He tells Minimashi to bring him to her house. He also tells a servant, Akeno, to fetch him some flowers from the garden. Minimashi tells him that Akeno is blind, but Akeno is able to bring him the specific color flowers that he asks for just by smell.
Chamberlain Abe arrives at the house and Taketori brings him in. But it turns out that Abe’s court rival, Prince Kuramochi, is already there. They engage in some passive aggressive chit chat while waiting for Kaya to appear. She arrives with Taketori and Tayoshime.
Both Abe and Kuramochi, previously skeptical of the rumors, are struck by her beauty. Just look at these two distinguished men of high standing.
Some time later, Kaya is standing in a field looking at her crystal ball. She is so engrossed that she does not hear a runaway horse galloping towards her. Akeno, who had been walking past, yells at her and throws her walking stick in her direction. Kaya manages to get out of the way just in time.
As Kaya gets back up, Akeno walks towards her, searching for her stick. Kaya finds it and hands it to her, asking why she could not find it herself. Akeno says that she is blind, which Kaya has not heard of before. Kaya introducers herself, and Akeno says that she must be the new girl. She asks where Kaya is from and where she was born. Kaya looks down and admits that she does not know. When Akeno asks if she is trying to pull a fast one, Kaya insists that it is true, and that she is trying to find out herself.
This movie is based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, sometimes known as The Tale of Princess Kaguya. It was written sometime in the late 9th or early 10th century, but the authorship is unknown or, at least debated. Given certain things that are revealed later in the story, it is considered to be a work of proto-science fiction. It has been adapted and referenced many times in Japanese media, and especially since the 1980s. There were two Manga released before this movie that updated the setting to modern times. That could be the reason for the text in the beginning, talking about the potential timelessness of the story. This movie seemed to try to retain its ancient settings while leaning rather hard into the science fiction aspects of the story. Though critics at the time where a little cool on the movie, it did rather well financially. Personally, I find that juxtaposition between the ancient and sci-fi to be rather interesting. If we could not get Mifune Toshirō in Star Wars ten years earlier, then why not this?
Sidenote: this is by the same director who did Her Brother and Fires on the Plain. While those two movies were quite different from each other despite being released a year apart, this one is definitely from a different era.
Due to the story being pretty well-known, the movie is perfectly fine with trimming down parts of the plot, skipping over a lot, giving certain aspects more focus, or recontextualizing things. A lot of characters, such as the high priest, get spotlights at the beginning that make it looks like they will be main characters and then do not reappear until the second half of the movie. Kaya’s superpowers make their presence known in the beginning and then…nothing. Most importantly, there is shot of the moon taking up the entire frame right before the disaster. Those familiar with the story will know its significance, and people who are unfamiliar can probably guess, but the movie really takes its time getting back to that, so that that shot on its own means nothing for about an hour. All of this can be a bit disorienting to someone who is unfamiliar with the tale, but who says that movies have to go straight from A to B to C? Watching the story unfurl in a rather roundabout way was part of the fun. And Japanese audiences at the time seemed to be fine with it, if not the critics.
The movie did also make some notable stylistic choices. Not necessarily unique, but noticeable. We don’t see young Kaya meeting the kids, for instance. We just see static shots of their faces and then a shot of her seemingly towering over them. Conversely, there are also a lot of wide shots showing all of the characters in the middle of the frame, giving it the feel of a stageplay, and I would not be surprised if it were based on a stage-play adaptation. The coloration of the entire thing also gives off an otherworldly quality to the movie at times; not necessarily fake, but unreal. Many of the women are pale in a way that their skin sometimes looks slightly purple. It helps to make the somewhat odd characterizations more acceptable, particularly Kaya’s transformation from completely stoic to suddenly very emotional. Or Tayoshime’s grief transformed into joyous belief. Or Taketori’s need to make sense of what is obviously impossible until he just stops. Like a sci-fi fairy tale.
I don’t really have much else to say about it. I enjoyed it.
WTF ASIA 184: The Uninvited (South Korea: 2003, approx. 128 minutes)
WTF ASIA 185: Penguin (India: 2020, approx. 132 minutes)