To say that the art of this animation is beautiful and refreshing is an understatement. The watercolor brush style is superb and unique in a world of anime dominated by flat colors and smooth lines. The story itself is certainly a timeless one of the yearning for happiness in a world mediated by notions of happiness which are in many ways in contradiction to the perceived essence of humanity as a natural being—that is, the diremption of ourselves away from the sheer immersion of life in its free expressive activity.
A humble and poor bamboo cutter finds a miraculous baby born of a magical bamboo stalk, takes her in as his own along with his wife, and finds some major material gifts from heaven which he interprets as a sign of her royal destiny. Convinced of this, he uses the gifts as a beginning to bring up his daughter as a princess that shall live a life of social nobility. A significant chunk of the story concerns Kaguya’s royal suitors, but their tale is one of typical materialist objectification on which I shan’t comment.
The themes of misguided notions of happiness, the contradictions and futility of desire’s satisfaction, the inevitability of the end of all things and their inherent impermanence, and finally the release of enlightenment as an absolute letting go of all things are typical of Eastern mysticism and Buddhism, but I’m not going to focus on them from that particular point of view.
Human society in its so-called highest form as culture tends to be ever at odds with the flow of life and the world, caught in rigid structures which demand the twisting, breaking, and reshaping of the natural impulses of life and the conception of the world as one strictly caught up in social expectations mediating and mediated by control of material life and its reproduction. For the divine beings of the Moon, happiness is the sheer ecstasy of life as its activity, while for the earthly beings, happiness is the dream of the social position which removes them from the immersion of life, from labor, and from uncivilized and uncultured existence. As such, the aims of divine beings and earthly beings are in opposition—one that is born from their respective modes of existence. The divine exist eternally and abstractly, while the earthly exist within finite time and in given limiting structures of natural and social wants.
Throughout the movie, there is a constant irony in that the father of Princess Kaguya sees her destiny and happiness only through his own conception of it from the view of one who is immersed in life and cannot stand back from it and reflect, yet Kaguya is divine and does not care for such things. The basic animal life is one of desire which exists in the perpetual desire to rid itself of the tiresome activity of desire, a mistaken illusion that what is needed to end desire is pure consumption. This leads to a conception of happiness as mastery, first in pure domination over objects through our subjugation of them through consumption and second in the domination over other human beings by ordering others to labor so that we may enjoy the fruits of labor without laboring. Happiness for the earthly human being is thus seen as guaranteed material wealth and social position above others. Her father’s view of happiness is not simply one to be free from material want, but to have social position. To have others desire what we have, to desire us as what we physically are, and to desire our position from which we look down is the greatest happiness. The father, having experienced the real shackles of material want, sees the world only with the goal of escaping such want, but not only for himself or his immediate family. The whole point of becoming nobility is to gain the position not just to attain this freedom for oneself, but for one’s entire future lineage.
Princess Kaguya, looking from the divine position, is blessed with health, beauty, and wealth, never knowing the base suffering of sheer animal subsistence which her parents and friends suffer. Unlike her adoptive parents, Kaguya is born already in divine diremption from the immediate material suffering of life and remains throughout the story in complete diremption from it. While her father cannot escape his base understanding and rise into the spiritual world of articulate feeling and reflection, Kaguya, on the other hand, begins in pure material freedom and finds that the social condition of the sustaining of that freedom is itself a shackle on her spiritual and material freedom alike.
The Slavery of Mastery
Of striking note is the obvious unhappiness that Princess Kaguya clearly expresses in the role of her royal life and destiny as arranged by her father, yet how little her father notices or cares. She yearns to be free to live and enjoy life in the wild and untamed expression of her vitality as a living being. She wants to align with her essence and submerge into nature, careless and without having to take into account others and their expectations. She craves to flow with life, enjoying as it comes and goes. However, despite her clear distaste, disappointment, and boredom with royal social life, her father seems utterly blind to her own conception and desire for happiness. But is her father truly blind, or is it not the case that he sees what Kaguya does not? Freedom from materiality does not come freely for those of us who are not divine in origin; money only goes so far—it must be transformed into capital to generate the gushing fountain of wealth which just keeps giving. Though Kaguya is of divine origin and born to live one life as a human to enjoy, this is unknown until the last parts of the story. From the father’s perspective, he is thinking not just of himself, nor just of Kaguya, but of her legacy beyond herself as extension of herself—a legacy left to society and to the family she is expected to desire to have and foster.
The formation of such a basis of wealth to free one from material want, however, does not come without chains. As is understood in Buddhism, both the lord and the slave are bonded by chains—the former with ones of gold, the latter with ones of iron. One freedom is attained only to lose another, but can we say that in such a social world as Kaguya’s one could even be aware of this unfreedom were one not already free from the start? She knows the sufferings of the spirit because she is free from the awareness and conditioning of mere material survival. She is taught culture, though it comes easily due to her divine nature, yet it is on grounds of the legacy of human thought and the freedom from material want that she is able to conceive and articulate her own individual spiritual unfreedom. The father and mother too have sacrificed emotional happiness and freedom for Kaguya’s sake; they enter into a social world to which they are alien and in which they are unrecognized as what they are trying to become. Oh, how much easier it would have been for them to simply use that money to live as material nobility in the countryside without having to maintain any social appearance! While the easy interpretation is the stereotypical Buddhist one that the whole problem is a fiction of our own imagination and chasing after desire, I think one cannot simply deny the truth in the material standpoint of the father. The divine position is far removed from the real existential position which does and must engage with nature and social humanity alike. It is no fiction that in this world only a fool imagines that their life in abstraction is all that matters. Were everyone to fall into the position of the divine, humanity would hardly have advanced as a natural or social species.
Despite Kaguya’s high stature in spiritual developments of feeling and insight—her ‘natural’ nobility—this is not the case for the nobility as social nobility in general. Her royal mentor and teacher is educated and socially refined, yet formalistic and basic in her spiritual capacities. As part of the ruling class, she is one who is fully submerged in the role of mastery over others, a role which disdains life and its activities. To be noble is to be in many ways unnatural, if not simply above nature. The nobility spends a significant amount of its time doing nothing. However, they cannot laze around as in a contentful nothing of enjoyment; it must be a formalistic nothing showing one’s mastery over their natural being as well as others. They do not labor and disdain it even when it brings satisfaction and joy—indeed, the very thought of it is something expected to repulse them. The joy of nobility is the joy of social position, power of command by thought as word, and the submission of nature to will. They do not enjoy nature, do not go out into it because it is unclean to them, and do not submit to it in the form of immediate desire, for it is ‘base’ and ignoble; for them, desire must be consumed through highly-mediated forms by means of formal rituals. They do not express their natural being, covering themselves in heavy and elaborate garments and paints and modifying their physiques to fit a look that distinguishes them from the commoner and hiding this very appearance from the eyes of the unworthy in broad daylight. The nobility is free from one kind of material want—they do not hunger or lack housing—but the price of this freedom is the utter enslavement to social formalism and the retraction from the vitality of life and spirit alike. The freedom of mastery is freedom from immediate life—the denial of its value and power—as much as it is the freedom from spiritual essence—the denial of the free expression of thought and feeling. The nobility is shackled by social constructions of its own design turned upon them as an external other which demands them to fit its expectations, a chain which through the denial of life also materially impedes their freedom of actual material action. The rich cannot even walk outside for a pleasure stroll without an entire ceremony and garb to maintain them at a distance from nature and commoner alike. This disdain of life as life and the immense importance of social standing is what enables nobility to so easily commit ritual suicide in the face of defeat or great shame: better to die a master than to live as a beastly slave.
Ignoring the element of myth in the story, one thing to note is that if one ignores the divinely given material freedom and spiritual attunement of Princess Kaguya, the position of her father’s understanding and wishes comes under different light. Had she been the bamboo cutter’s natural daughter, and had she lived the typical life of natural poverty at the whims of society and nature alike, would she have a different outlook? Obviously, she would have been drastically different. Without the blessing of heaven to save her, it is not the case that she would not have known happiness any more or less, but rather that she would definitely have seen things from her own father’s eyes after growing up in such a fashion. Surely Kaguya, had she a daughter of her own, would wish for not only her but also the subsequent lineage of the family after her to be freed from such drudgery if at all possible.
This space between a wall and a hard place—between opposing and equally true yet false conceptions of the world and what we should aim in it—is what humanity over history almost unanimously faces as a fundamental condition. We are stuck between the wall of our own experience of want, the gap of our desire to see such an experience not repeat for our children and loved ones, and the hard place of the challenging opposite perception of youth which does not understand the struggle from which we are trying to save them. One generation lives through severe material deprivation—manages to get lucky and find a social space which alleviates such want—only to have following generations which are born to a life and experience of abundance that lack any understanding or appreciation of the sacrifice it took to attain such freedom and what it means to the older generations. The first is eternally preoccupied with keeping material need forever at bay, while the second often sinks into sloth and stupor or rises to spiritual heights which abandon the preoccupation for materiality.
In the world of want, there is a problematic relation between what is, what should be, and what can be. We are doomed to know the world is not as it should be, yet we are also doomed to the limits of what it can be. As individuals and collectives, we can only do so much to advance an ideal. To accomplish our highest ideals is a trade of dreams for actual possibilities. What it takes to merely become what we aspire—to be who we dream we truly are—is no mere natural flowing essence in ecstatic actualization. For everything beautiful and grand, we must submit ourselves to sacrifices of many alienating kinds; to do what we most want to do, we very often must do things we despise doing, and sometimes we must become people that we ourselves would despise. For every moment of genius, there is a lifetime of drudgery either for us or for those who make such genius possible. The fact of life, however, is that most of us must make these sacrifices for what can be in order to make steps toward what should be.
Kaguya’s desire to simply live life is one to which only the divine can aspire, for the divine have no desire which requires the cooperation and coordination of a whole social entity to realize. Such an entity is one which does not bend to our dreams, but rather bends our dreams to it first and only minimally budges for us later. If we wish to see even shadows of our dreams come to fruition, we must bend to society unless we are graced by divine fortune—such as Kaguya’s fount of wealth—or the luck of meeting those with means who believe in our dreams and grant the basis upon which to make them real—such as Friedrich Engels’ financial investment in Karl Marx. An old Marxist saying goes, “Man must first eat before philosophizing,”—that is, we must take care of material life and its need before we can properly care for the spiritual. In the modern day, this is not so clear; we live in an age in which even the most poor have the possibility of access to the deep wells of conceptual and cultural thought—something not available in traditional societies like Kaguya’s. One cannot simply live life as Kaguya wants. One must deal with society—with humanity, with culture, and with desires. Kaguya’s own desire is one born of culture, for no mere animal desires to live life, a desire which is one born of a conceptualized worldview. If she ignored her divine origin, then she could not have acquired such a view without the social order which she so despised, short of being a monk.
Myth, Mysticism, and Ahistorical Existence;
Spirit, Freedom, and History
Despite having abstracted the mythical away for a moment of critical comment, one cannot miss taking note of the mythical, philosophical, and spiritual in the story.
In the story, Kaguya says that when one wears the robe of the Moon, one forgets earthly existence completely. This is an important aspect of Buddhism in a very radical sense. To lose one’s memory as a human is akin to death in that the ego’s basis dies, for they who have no memory have no history—no conception of self nor attachment to self, others, or things. In donning the robe, Kaguya seems, in a way, enlightened. Through the loss of memory, she seems released from the cycle of birth and death to which memory and desiring doom humans. The land of the Moon is a land without death, without suffering, without identity, and without history. While in the story the people of the Moon—the Buddha and his divine entourage of what seem like devas—seem perfectly happy as eternal party animals, this is in the esoteric side of Buddhism, not the case of enlightenment. Without the focus on temporality—with the mere sense of the now and the flow of becoming—the notion of self-hood, joy, and suffering become meaningless. Past and future—history itself—equally becomes meaningless, for there is no memory from which one learns and no future to which one could aspire. The people of the Moon abstract themselves from the world in a manner of immediate being, indifferent to it and to themselves, and as such they just as easily submerge themselves in the natural flow of nature. When Kaguya pleads for them to come and save her, and then to her horror realizes what she has just done, the Buddha does not pause to ponder the reason behind the call; there is no question afterward of whether the call is serious or whether it is a mistake. The wheel of karma is set in motion and the fruits of karma necessarily follow, regardless of our feelings and thoughts about it. The Buddha, in his eternal now, is free from karma’s chains because he is inactive and generates no karma; however, he just as freely enters the world and flows with karma unquestioningly. He shows no care when Kaguya pleads for just a moment more with her parents, and in the middle of her last hug with them, she is given the robe and immediately is snapped away from self, history, and mortal world.
Against the existence, or lack thereof, of those who live on the Moon, those on Earth are also abstracted, but their abstraction is one of determinate difference which is submerged yet removed from mere nature. Unlike the divine beings who realize their essence as nature by dissolving their own into it, the earthly beings are stuck in a dualistic existence where self and nature, ideality and actuality, essence and existence, desire and satisfaction, past and future never quite coincide. While divinity collapses itself into singularity and dissolves into infinite indeterminate becoming, humans exist in and through the tensions that are the self-movements which generates history and karma alike. Humanity is ripped asunder from nature by its reflective thinking which allows it to question its own being and to question its own questioning. The human individual is internally torn and despairs from the incongruence between what is and what should be and between what it believes it itself should be yet fails to be. It is the endless abyss of desire for something other that impels life and humanity forward in all endeavors, the arising of thought only allowing an ever more elaborate striving which seeks novel forms of satisfaction and happiness which nonetheless prove ephemeral. Society and culture are the fruit born of this striving of thinking, and therefore spiritual, creatures. The despair of lacking divine wholeness and peace is itself such a spiritual fruit. In a world without history, enlightenment is not even a possibility, for there is no division between mind and feeling. Nature is what it is and despairs not of this or that aspect of itself—it hungers, it strives, it succeeds, and it fails without ever once rising above itself and contemplating a why.
Clearly, Kaguya and others on the Moon have gone to and came from the Moon before. How many times, one cannot know, for the Moon is a place of timelessness. This fits into some Zen Buddhist notions that Samsara—the world—and nirvana are one and the same. One leaves only to realize one only yearns to return and returns only to yearn to leave. Enlightenment, then, becomes the acceptance that life and the world are what they are and are never otherwise. One must enjoy the trip, and take it for what it is: a passing moment fated to fade in the death of memory or the death of body—either one makes no difference.
The differences between divine and mortal standpoints in the story is an important one, for while we aspire to the divine standpoint we nonetheless exist as mortals. Can we really grasp the divine standpoint as mortals? Does the divine grasp the mortal perspective when all it does is dissolve the basis of the problem rather than work through it? Should we desire to grasp such a divine standpoint given the conditions of life and history?
Against the divine standpoint is always the standpoint of the earthly beings who are halfway between divinity and nature. Life may be what it is, but it is for us to judge what it should be. As natural beings who lack wholeness and holiness alike, we are driven by the ever-present need to go beyond what is insofar as it fails to be what we deem it should be. Though some would look at our current state of the world and say we have come no farther and are none the better for all our material and conceptual advancements, I for one am quite glad many in history have chosen the standpoint of the human rather than the detached divine, for it is thanks to them that we can even be here to contemplate such a thing as this film. The divine, being that it is what is, is in principle unavoidable in the eastern sense, thus even when we wish to avoid it it shall come upon us and shroud us in the robe of the moon, eventually submerging us back into the flow of nature only to one day return again.