In this mukashibanashi, one that has been retold left and right through the ages (whether as comedy or drama, or even science fiction!), and that has given name to Moon missions, a maiden of unearthly beauty descends upon Earth to... best not to tell anyone, for that would be spoilerific!
Mukashi mukashi, once upon a time, the Nayotakes, an old woodsman and woodswoman, husband and wife, had been married for decades without having any children or even grandchildren, no matter how many their prayers for one that would bless them with much needed help and comfort.
Until... One summer evening when the Moon was full, yet the rabbit formed by its seas did strangely not appear on its blank surface, as the woodsman returned home with the axe on his shoulder, he noticed a shimmering silvery light, far brighter than that of any firefly, in the middle of a bamboo thicket. Cutting his way towards the mysterious light, he discovered its source to be an unusually large bamboo cane from which the glow radiated. It would be needless to say he chopped down the cane, wondering about the reason for the light within... But imagine the face of the old woodswoman when her husband returned home to their thatched cottage with the axe on his right shoulder as usual... and a healthy little baby, glowing with a silver light, cradled in his left arm! Though it was a girl, they were contented with the prospect of a granddaughter miraculously born from a bamboo cane; the gods had replied to their prayers at last! Because of the light of the full moon, and the similar light of the little girl herself, the old woodswoman named her foster grandchild Kaguya, which means "Shining."
As time went by, Kaguya became the woodsfolk's pride and joy; she thrived in both body and soul as far as their eyes could see, and what's more, every time her foster grandfather returned home from the woods he brought a gold nugget he had found while chopping a tree-branch; and thus, soon the little Nayotake family was wealthy and their cottage had grown into an estate, with horses and gardens and an arbour and all!
And Kaguya picked up the fine arts of the court ladies, should she come to shine in the greater world; not a more graceful handwriting, nor a more skilful poet or flower arranger, was there in the whole Empire when she was a maiden, no longer a child yet not yet a woman, with long hair as black as midnight and skin as fair and pale as the full moon, and a mind that was equally bright... and thus, it came as no surprise as suitors stormed in, dashing lordlings, from both the capital and the provinces, desiring to win the heart and hand of the lovely Princess Kaguya. Yet she knew what to expect from each and every one of the suitors, that they were mainly after her family fortune, and sent them all away. She wanted a true prince; a young man that was dashing, brave, intelligent, able to lead the armies during wartime and to patronise the arts during peacetime... long story short, a bridegroom such as she had never seen among her countless suitors.
Yet she did not despair the least to attain what she desired, determined as she was not to stop at the first best marriage of convenience and to choose herself, come hell or highwater, no matter his rank, a spouse worthy of her.
So she sent her various suitors on different quests that were actually fools' errands, sending each and every one of them away with a graceful flick of the wrist. Or so she did rather to those who managed to return alive to her presence, since many of the quests were literally a matter of life and death. Lord Kurumochi was asked to bring a branch of the fabled golden ruby-tree, with fruit and all; the one he brought to the Nayotake Mansion was revealed to be a forgery made by skilful artisans who had cast the gold and cut the rubies into berry shapes by hand. The Minister of the Left was asked to bring a rainbow pearl from the tiara of the Dragon Queen, but he never returned to Kaguya's estate, having been swallowed up by a wave on a stormy night, having set sail and scoured the Pacific to bring the moon-white maiden the precious jewel.
Eventually the Crown Prince himself, the eldest son of the Empress, came to the Nayotake estate to try his luck at winning the renowned --and now regarded as unattainable-- Princess Kaguya. The Moon had begun to wax as the suitors were sent away, and it would be full on that summer night. To Kaguya's surprise, the Crown Prince was young and good-looking, dashing and charming, full of clever liveliness, and it came as no surprise that he found her charming, and she found him after her taste. The next day, they would start for the palace above all palaces, on the outskirts of the capital, and Kaguya, the rare provincial bride, would eclipse all the born and bred court ladies like the full moon shines above all the stars in the night sky... But why were there tears in her eyes as she looked that evening at the full moon, rabbitless as it had been ever since the Nayotakes had adopted her?
She summoned both her grandparents and her imperial bridegroom into her bedchamber and mournfully told them... "I must return to whence I came from."
All three mortals listened attentively, turning pale and eyes widening with concern, as Kaguya explained that she was the Rabbit that pounded moon cakes for the moonfolk on the full moon; having heard many a night the prayers of old Mrs. Nayotake, she pitied the childless woodswoman and descended upon Earth as a human child, to be a source of joy and love for mortalkind. But now her servants, sent by her master --the moon-god Tsukiyomi--, were due to take the Rabbit up to the full moon where she belonged. She thanked the Nayotakes for raising in the best of ways, adding that she was very sorry to part with them, and planted a kiss upon the brow of her imperial fiancé.
There was obviously much consternation; the old grandmother dried up her tears on her husband's sleeves, and the Crown Prince commanded his escort to guard the whole Nayotake Mansion, one guard at every door, throughout the night, for the moon-folk not to take the lovely Kaguya away.
However, they were as powerless as the moon-bright maiden had foretold; little by little, officers and men alike began to feel drowsy and weary, slumping on their posts as the great harvest moon was shrouded with clouds and a silvery carriage descended upon the balcony of the princess's bedchamber. At once Kaguya opened the window and stepped onto the ledge to enter her carriage, yet before she spoke many a comforting word to her guardians and fiancé, consoling them with the thought that they would always keep her in their hearts and remember her when looking at the Rabbit on the full moon.
Taking off her shawl, she dried up her grandmother's tears with it and left it to the old woodswoman as a keepsake. She also handed over a little lacquered clay vial to the Crown Prince, claiming that it was the Elixir of Life, before entering her carriage, that ascended until it disappeared upon the silvery full moon.
After that, the face of the moon, when full, regained its missing Rabbit. The old Nayotakes adopted orphans to secure their fortune, and the prince inherited the imperial crown that had been his late father's, yet, upon facing the prospect of a marriage of state to a wanton court lady, he abdicated in his next brother in line and left the grandeur of the palace for an ascetic life in a shrine hermitage on the ever-snowy slopes of the Fuji-san, having asked what the highest peak, closest to the sky, in the Empire was, and being directed to said volcano in response. There, hesitating for a while whether he should drink the Elixir of Life, putting the vial to his lips, he finally lit a fire and, not having downed a single drop, poured the potion upon the flames, convinced as he was that a lifetime of eternity was not the one to lead without Kaguya by his side.
REMARKS ON THIS TALE:
- This story, the oldest mukashibanashi ever recorded, contains a riddle princess story similar to those of Portia, Savitri, or the Princess in Story the Fourth of The Snow Queen by Andersen; where only the right suitor can pass the engagement challenge. But the framing of the tale with the premise of an otherworldly being, like a deity, spending some time upon Earth among mortalkind, adds even more complexity to it.
- A Moon-studying Japanese probe has been called Kaguya after the heroine of this tale. Its subsatellites are called Okina (archaism for jiisan/grandfather) and Ouna (archaism for baasan/grandmother) after Kaguya's guardians.
- Many anime and videogames, from Studio Ghibli's Princess Kaguya to a subplot in Okami via Queen Millennia (The New Tale of Princess Kaguya being its original title) are retellings of the Kaguya story. The two latter, and furthermore the Ultra Beast Pokémon Celesteela, take a sci-fi inspiration by making the titular character a humanoid space alien.
- Minami Kaido of Go! Princess Precure has also starred in a stage version in the School Play episode of the series.
- The Asian cultures see a Rabbit pounding rice for the moon gods where we Europeans see the face of the Man in the Moon; in reality these are the seas ("maria"), or plains, of the Earth's only natural satellite.
- The ending is reminiscent of Arwen's decision to become human, and thus mortal, to stay by Aragorn's side; isn't it poetic and heartwarming?
MUKASHIBANASHI I HAVE DONE SO FAR AND THOSE LEFT TO TELL:
Benizara and Kakezara
Kaguyahime (Princess Kaguya)
Momotaro (Peach Taro)
Grampies with Wens (Kobutori Jiisan)
Old Man Bloom (Hanasaka Jiisan)
The Hatted Jizos (Kasa Jizo)
The Tengu's Cloak
Mount Crackle (Kachikachiyama)
The Macaque Vs. the Crab (Saru Kani Gassen)
The Lucky Kettle (Bunbuku Chagama)