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Literature / The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

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Kaguya ascending to the Moon.
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The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (Taketori Monogatari) is a Japanese folktale dating to approximately the 10th century. It is considered the oldest monogatarinote  in Japanese literary history.

As the story goes, an old bamboo cutter chances upon a beautiful stalk of bamboo, in which he finds a lovely baby girl the size of his thumb. Since he and his wife have no children, they adopt the baby as their own and christen her Nayotake no Kaguya-hime ("Shining Princess of the Young Bamboo"). Kaguya brings the family wealth — every time the bamboo cutter cuts a stalk, he finds a nugget of gold — and soon grows into a woman of extraordinary beauty. This attracts five suitors who want to marry her. Unwilling to marry any of them, Kaguya asks them to find an impossible item, and remains unmarried when all of them fail. Eventually the Emperor himself comes to ask for her hand. Kaguya rebuffs him, but they remain in contact, and the Emperor eventually falls in love with her.

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Eventually, Kaguya reveals to her parents that she belongs to a race of people who live on the moon, and she must now return to them. The Emperor sends his men to try and stop her departure, but to no avail — the moon's entourage brings Kaguya back to their home, breaking the hearts of her adoptive parents.

The Emperor receives an elixir of immortality left to him by Kaguya. Unwilling to live without her, he orders his men to bring the elixir to the summit of the mountain closest to heaven and burn it along with a letter for her. This is mentioned as the reason smoke rises from Mount Fuji.

Since it's about a thousand years old, the story is in public domain, and has been adapted many times. Direct adaptations include Princess From the Moon in 1987 and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya in 2013. It also memorably received a Whole Plot Reference in 1989 Big Bird in Japan with the story narrated by Pat Morita. Many other pieces of media also take inspiration from the story, to the point that you can expect a female character named "Kaguya" to have something to do with the legend. Due to its extraterrestrial plot elements, it is also considered one of the earliest examples of Science Fiction.

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Tropes:

  • Born from Plants: Kaguya is seemingly born from a stalk of bamboo.
  • Engagement Challenge: Kaguya asks each of her five suitors to find an impossible item — the Buddha's begging bowl, a jeweled branch from the mythical island of Hōrai, a robe made of Chinese fire-rat skins, a jewel from a dragon's neck, and a cowry shell born from a swallow — and says she'll marry the one who brings her the real thing.
  • First Contact Farmer: Princess Kaguya is found and raised by a lowly bamboo cutter, who decides to raise her until she decides to return to the moon where she was born.
  • Happily Adopted: Kaguya genuinely loves her adoptive parents and is sorrowful about having to leave them for the moon.
  • Impossible Task: Kaguya intentionally devised her Engagement Challenge to be impossible to fulfill, and her suitors either try to con her or die in the attempt.
  • "Just So" Story: Explains Mount Fuji's volcanic activity as the Emperor burning an elixir of immortality to reach Kaguya on the moon.
  • Lunarians: Kaguya belongs to a race of extraterrestrials who live on the moon.
  • Sliding Scale of Beauty: Kaguya is a Divine Beauty, as her unearthly attractiveness is implied to be because she's a lunarian.
  • Wonder Child: The bamboo cutter and his wife are childless, and adopt a baby they find in a bamboo stalk.
  • Yamato Nadeshiko: Kaguya-hime was sweet, polite, gentle and devoted to her adoptive parents. While she did ask her suitors to do impossible things as the condition to marry any of them (which meant, none succeeded), it wasn't because of hate or cruelty, but because she had to return to the Moon at some point. Various interpretations do have her issue the tasks because of annoyance or because she genuinely didn't want to marry the men.

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