WARNING: THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA AND KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS

“If you must blink, do it now”… or you might miss these important details! Focus Features released KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS last week, and it has received critical acclaim across the board. THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA succeeded similarly: the 87th Academy Awards nominated it for Best Animated Feature, and Rotten Tomatoes gives it an astounding 100 percent critic approval rating!

It’s no question that these films are incredible, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look at them with a critical eye. These stories draw from a popular Japanese folktale involving the ethereal moon people. Divinity versus humanity has always been an intriguing theme. From DANTE’S INFERNO to PARADISE LOST, authors and audiences have always been interested in this dynamic. Overall, it seems like society is progressing towards a more human-positive light. Generally, freedom of expression takes priority over conformity nowadays. THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA and KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS both show this type of progression, as well! What kind of implications does this trend have on our society, and is there anything wrong with it? First, let’s see how both these movies handle this theme.

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The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA is directly based on its 10th-century predecessor, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The story centers around Kaguya, a girl, originally from the moon, who lives as a human for a while on earth. Both versions of the tale focus on Kaguya’s life and experiences among humans, showcasing the nature of humanity. In the end, however, she remembers her place among the celestial beings, and returns to them. Before analyzing this story further, here’s a quick summary:

On earth, Kaguya is adopted by an elderly bamboo cutter and his wife. He finds her and a nugget of gold in a glowing bamboo stalk, and raises her as his child. When she grows up, she finds many princes lining up to marry her—even the emperor himself. She rejects them all, however, remembering she doesn’t really belong among them. Soon, she reveals that she must return to the moon. In some versions of the story, she was sent down temporarily to pay for a crime she had committed. In others she was a refugee from a celestial war. As soon as the celestial procession comes to collect her, they put a special robe on her, making her forget all the sadness and compassion she had for the people of earth.

The Japanese Fairy Book version of Princess Kaguya’s return to the moon

In the version of this story where Kaguya was sent down as atonement for her crime, humanity is essentially depicted as a pseudo-hell. At least for the divine moon people, Earth is a place full of material attachments that cause unnecessary pain. For example, the human princes that try to court Kaguya are impulsive, deceptive, and irrational. They are physically attracted to Kaguya’s beauty and want to marry her for that reason alone. In order to pick which one to marry, Kaguya says she will wed the first one to bring her a legendary treasure. For such a trivial pursuit, they attempt to satisfy Kaguya’s impossible requests. Then, when three of the princes realize this impossibility, they try to deceive the princess with fake treasures. The fourth prince eventually quits and the fifth either dies or is severely injured, depending on the version of the story told. When Kaguya has to leave, the Emperor sends an army to prevent her departure. Humanity is portrayed as a group of irrational, emotional, impulsive people.

In this folktale, humanity is, however, not that important to the plot. Moreover, the moral of the story is that Kaguya “knows her place”. No matter how good or bad humans may be, at the end of the day, the moon people are decisively above them. Here, divinity wins over humanity by default. They live without unnecessary emotions and treat their citizens, even the ones who break laws, reasonably. This message is generally pretty common in old fiction. PARADISE LOST and DANTE’S INFERNO are both Christian epics that explore how people progressively failed God. Meaning, humans just don’t chalk up to divine beings.

Princess Kaguya and the Moon People

Princess Kaguya looking back at earth

The Studio Ghibli version of this tale is slightly different. In the film, we can see much more of Kaguya’s personal experience in her human life. She is a thrillingly exuberant child, reveling in all nature has to offer. She enjoys playing with her friends and scavenging for food. Even when her father discovers an outpouring of money from her bamboo stalk and moves their family to the capital, she still finds joy in all of her experiences.

Unfortunately, her father takes the money as a sign that Kaguya is to be raised as a noblewoman, and hires a governess to tutor her. Although Kaguya excels at her lessons, she would rather play and goof off. These two butt heads and Kaguya argues that what her governess expects is inhuman. If a princess cannot “sweat and laugh out loud… or want to cry… or get mad and shout… then a noble princess isn’t human!” This is a reference to Kaguya’s background since later on, she can clearly present herself as a noblewoman of these expectations.

Kaguya's governess
Kaguya’s governess

Things begin to spiral downhill when she comes of age and is to be presented to high society. Her lessons are now a reality. Unlike the folktale, this film highlights Kaguya’s personal struggles with being confined and repressed. During her debutante party, she is expected to be silent behind screens as the nobles appraise her. She reaches her breaking point when she hears the nobles insulting her father, and lashes out when she’s alone.

Again, the princes come to court her when she’s older. The princes are superficially swayed by her beauty and compare her to legendary treasures. Not wanting to marry any of them, Kaguya cheekily challenges them to bring her the treasures, and then she’ll marry them. Unfortunately, this results in the death of one of the princes, sending Kaguya into crushing guilt. Then later, when the Emperor makes advances on her, she’s disgusted and calls out for help.

Princess Kaguya dancing in flower petals

In Studio Ghibli’s version of Kaguya’s tale, Kaguya purposely broke a law so she would be sent down to earth. This ties into Kaguya’s almost unhinged nature and issues with withholding her feelings. She comes from a repressively peaceful society that she wanted to escape. Even though life as a human is painted as a struggle to survive (as a peasant), and, again, full of irrational, emotional impulses, it is also depicted as desirable. In the old folktale, there was no reason Kaguya would have ever come down to earth unless it was for protection, or for punishment. This time, it was because she wanted to. She revels in the freedom of expression for both good and bad feelings. On the moon, she wouldn’t feel anything but an unfulfilling tranquility.

Ironically, the main source of her pain as a human stems from the moon people’s actions. Since she broke a law, we can reasonably assume that the moon people knew what would happen when her father encountered the lavish amount of money they sent for her upkeep. Even though Kaguya wanted to go to earth in this version, the moon people intended it as punishment. Earth was meant to be some sort of reform for Kaguya, where she would learn she was mistaken about a human life, and return to their peaceful society as a more cooperative member.

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Even if they didn’t purposely plant the money, the only time Kaguya experiences hugely negative emotions is when she is placed in a confining society, like the one she came from. The upper class has many rules and regulations that she never wanted to comply with, and she is forced to hold everything in. She’s not allowed to feel. When she’s taken back, the moon people put the same magic robe from the folk tale on Kaguya to take away her feelings, similarly. As she’s taken away, the moon people say she’ll soon be free of earth’s “impurities”, likely meaning emotions. In response, Kaguya scorns them, replying that earth is full of wonder and life.

While this film showcases the downsides of human impulse, it also emphasizes how desirable human expression is. In the folktale, Kaguya seems to return without much protest, since she didn’t explicitly want to leave in the first place. Here, however, she regrets calling out to the moon and lashes out at the moon people for insulting earth. We’ve gone from the idea that being above human pain is better to the idea that human struggle is more worthwhile.

Why is that? It could be that we live at a time where we are all globally aware of all the pitfalls and despairs of humanity. The internet will show us devastating news that we would have never known without it. Creators probably like to remind us being able to fully experience life, with all the good and the bad, is arguably better than living in tranquil apathy. This movie gives a well-balanced view of the divinity versus humanity trope. It gives more weight to the human side of the argument. A divine life isn’t just automatically better anymore; all ways of life are weighed as equally valid options. 

Kubo and the Moon King

“Kubo…”

So what about KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS? This Laika film doesn’t draw from any specific folklore, but it does feature the Japanese concept of the divine moon people. Originally, Kubo’s mother comes from the moon. She is the eldest daughter of the Moon King, and the most powerful magic user out of her sisters. However, she leaves them for a samurai named Hanzo, whom she was supposed to kill. Feeling betrayed, her family comes for her and her son. Her sisters manage to take baby Kubo’s left eye, but she manages to escape. At the start of the film, Kubo and his mother are rediscovered, and he embarks on a quest to find his father’s armor to protect himself.

In this film, the moon people are vastly more aggressive than their Ghibli counterparts. The Moon King a.k.a Kubo’s Grandfather wants to literally and figuratively make Kubo “blind to humanity” so he can join his divine family among the stars. In this context, being blind to humanity is supposed to make it easier for the moon people to judge humans. Kubo’s mother was sent to kill Hanzo because he was seeking out powerful armor. According to the Moon King, Hanzo would grow too arrogant for a human if he attained that power. So, in this story, the moon people don’t simply look down on humans, they despise them, even more so after Kubo’s mother falls in love with one.

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Humanity, on the other hand, is portrayed in a neutral to positive light. Most of the film’s critical scenes are between Kubo, his anthropomorphic companions, and his moon family. The few scenes with normal humans cast them in a favorable light. Even though the Moon King claims that on Earth, there’s only death and suffering, even the beggar lady seems to be having a good time. The villagers that Kubo tells his stories to adore him! They don’t ostracize him or his mother, and they always look forward to seeing him. Even after the final battle between Kubo and his grandfather, damaging a good chunk of the village, they show their compassion and support for both of them. (Major spoiler alert!) Instead of destroying him, Kubo makes his grandfather half-human and erases his memories.

Immediately, the villagers tell him he’s a good and kind man to help make him into a better person. While this article won’t go into the implications or ramifications of lying about his true identity, this is an act of kindness on the humans’ part. They all witnessed the powerful monstrosity that Kubo was up against, and heard him condemning humanity. Even so, they are ready to accept him into their society and forge personal relationships with him.

For the Future

Kubo’s mother was the first to see value in humans. When she fought and spoke with Hanzo, she realized he had something warmer than her family did, much like Kaguya saw value in a human life. This film is heavily human-positive, as strange as that may sound. Studio Ghibli’s version of Princess Kaguya had a more even tone, fairly depicting both the good and bad of humans. Overall, just looking at these two films, it appears as if we’re progressing towards praising humanity more. As a society, it’s great that we’ve come far from the days where people would criticize those who are full of emotion and self-expression. When we hear stories from refugees of oppressive regimes or countries, we can see what damage repressive societies can really do. From North Korean defectors who don’t know what the internet is to Syrian refugees who never thought they could celebrate their Gay Pride, it’s easy to see what’s wrong with overly-controlling environments. From a difference perspective, this trend could be because of a declining religious mindset. In a 2014 survey done by the Pew Research Center, about 22.8 percent of the American population identifies as religiously unaffiliated. In 2007, this was only 16.1 percent. As time goes on, there’s a clear shift in attitudes towards accepting spiritual authorities. 

Whatever the reason, it is important to keep a balance when using this theme. THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA and KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS are artistic masterpieces. There’s no question of their value. However, to paint a more comprehensive, realistic picture, it is important to go beyond excusing our defaults by demonizing our critics. The Moon King can likely represent a lot more than just a the divine figure from Japanese folklore, but for the sake of this article, and this theme, we’ll look at it from this perspective. We shouldn’t get used to demonizing our critics. In order to have a healthy view of humanity, we can’t excuse all its downfalls by ignoring its critics. While people with views like the Moon King might not have our best interests at heart, we can still figure out which of their complaints are valid. As time goes on, we’ll likely see this theme evolve. All things come to equilibrium, and we might see this theme strike a balance between accepting critique, and enlightening humanity’s critics.

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