This past week, Jim and I watched The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, an animated film from Studio Ghibli. If you haven’t seen the film and plan to, don’t worry. I don’t intend any spoilers other than one that you could find easily by reading the original Japanese “monogatari” – what we would probably classify as a “fairy tale” – the title of which is usually translated as “The Bamboo Cutter’s Daughter” or “The Bamboo Cutter and the Moon-Child.” As with many fairy tales, the details differ, but the fact that the ending is not a precisely happy one does not.
We finished the film on Saturday. On Sunday, we happened to see some friends who share our fondness for animated films. Those of us who had seen the film all agreed that the animation – which is inspired by traditional Japanese brush painting – is incredibly beautiful. The story has a wonderful opening, and an interesting twist in the middle.
However, when the subject of the ending came up, and we were trying to explain it to a friend who hadn’t seen the film, we were at a bit of a loss. I think Rowan put it best. “It’s not as if it’s horrible or anything. It’s just that they didn’t give it the usual Disneyfied ‘happy ending.’”
Those of you who only know fairy tales only through their Disney interpretations might be somewhat mystified by Rowan’s comment. A good example of how Disney frequently re-interprets fairytales for modern sensibilities is The Little Mermaid. I discussed this story in great detail a few years ago, so I won’t go into it again. You can read the about it here.
On Monday, I found myself thinking again about the movie, especially about the ending. I’m conflicted. I think I would have liked a happier ending for The Tale of Princess Kaguya, but not because the traditional ending was sad. It was more because I couldn’t help but feel Kaguya’s fate was rather pointless. Even with my previous familiarity with the story, I wanted to know both more about why Kaguya ended up on Earth and more about why she ended up… Well, the way she did.
The interesting thing is, I think there is a valid argument for saying that the ending is happy. Kaguya is spared a tremendous amount of pain, frustration, and misery. Given that the court of the Moon is artistically depicted with some very Buddhist iconography, I don’t think detachment from mortal concerns can be overlooked as one version of happiness (or at least an fate worth attaining). However, I couldn’t help but feel that in the story as interpreted by Studio Ghibli, Kaguya might have chosen an unhappier existence rather than the ostensible happiness she is offered.
Happy endings are a real issue for writers. Readers will put up with a great deal as long as they are satisfied that, in the end, everything works out – if not happily, at least for some variation of “the best.” I can think of stories I loved until the ending “ruined” it for me. How about you?