Happy Endings?

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.

Worth Devouring?

Worth Devouring?

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?

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12 Responses to “Happy Endings?”

  1. Paul Genesse Says:

    Great post. I think readers need a “payoff” at the end, whether it be information about what the heck is really going on, a happy ending, closure of some kind, a resolution of the story problem(s), or a non-romantic (not happy) ending if it’s right for the story. For me, the best endings are foreshadowed in the book. I need to read your Little Mermaid post again, as that is a seriously unhappy ending in the novella by Hans Christian Anderson. Disney seems to have skewed our views about endings. I read that the Ancient Greeks preferred tragedies in their plays (and thought they were far superior) over comedies (happy endings). Tragedies stick with you for a lot longer, that’s for sure. I prefer a bit of a mixed ending, with both happiness and sadness.

    • chadmerkley Says:

      My understanding is that Ancient Greek drama was not about entertainment, per se, but rather more about social and religious unity. There was a ritual purpose behind the drama that we easily miss. I don’t know how that ties into the nature of the endings. I seem to recall that the Athenian dramatic festivals consisted of three tragedies and one comedy, so there might be a bias toward tragedy in the works that have survived.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Another thing about Classiscal comedy is that it had a good deal in common with Gilbert and Sullivan or the Late Show: if Aristophanes was typical, quite a few oxen were publicly gored.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Without going into a lecture…

      Tragedy was valued not because it was as downer but because it was supposed to generate catharsis — the sense of having gone through something horrible with the characters, but come out the other side into healing.

      For example, the Orestia is pretty grim, but at the end, the custom of personal vengeance is replaced with the rule of law, freeing people from the need to murder family members ad infinitum.

      Aristotles work on Tragedy shaped a lot of our views regarding how the Greeks saw Tragedy. Since the matching work on Comedy was lost, we don’t have a balance.

      I keep hoping they’ll find a copy in the ruins of some old archive, since they’re finding new ones and the ability to retrieve data from old manuscripts is growing by leaps and bounds.

  2. Jas. Marshall 6 Says:

    The movie “Bell, Book, and Candle” – great up until the last 5 minutes. The characters end up happy but the WAY they end up happy feels wrong to me.

    I’m also conflicted over the way the movie “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” ended.

    As for books/stories, Neil Gaiman’s endings often trouble me. To give one example, in the case of “Stardust,” it is well-foreshadowed that traditional happy endings are rare in Faerie but it still ends on a down note which hurts the story for me. (The movie version’s ending is more upbeat, but then the movie treated it as a comedy rather than a fairtytale.)

    What do you all think of the ending of “Lord of the Rings” (the book) especially Frodo’s fate?

    • janelindskold Says:

      I agree about “Bell, Book, and Candle” — first time Jim and I watched it together, we sat up late discussing that very point.

      Frodo’s fate… We could do a whole panel on this one. In short, as a reader, I’ve never liked it. However, as a depiction of a character with what today we’d call PTSD being offered a chance to heal — something many of Tolkien’s contemporaries never received, I think it’s a great kindness.

  3. chadmerkley Says:

    I think it all comes down to the author/reader relationship. Is the reader expecting to be challenged? Or does the reader simply want escapism or the comfort of a familiar structure? Sometimes, a surprising or challenging ending can make me go back and re-read a book, looking for the clues that led up to the ending, or trying to understand the author’s purpose in presenting the ending that way. Often, those become some of my favorite books. Other times, it can be the journey to a happy ending that intrigues me.

    An example of the surprise ending for me was Jane’s CHILD OF A RAINLESS YEAR. An example of a good journey to an expected happy ending is THE BLUE SWORD by Robin McKinley.

    Jane, you seem to employ non-fairy tale endings frequently, with the big problems resolved, but with the characters still having unanswered questions and room to grow and change. This is something I enjoy about your work.

  4. Paul Says:

    I enjoy the same thing as chadmerkley about Jane’s work. Maybe it goes back to the idea of “Always leave ’em wanting more.” I think Audrey Hepburn’s first movie, “Roman Holiday,” was my first exposure to an unhappy but unavoidable ending given the context of the story. I’ll bet, if that movie was made today, they would insist on an artificially happy finish.

    • Jas. Marshall 6 Says:

      Pretty sure the Hallmark Channel made such a movie recently, featuring Greg Evigan’s daughter and included the happy ending. I didn’t actually watch the whole thing … I’d overdosed on Hallmark happy ending movies that weekend and couldn’t take another one.

  5. henrietta abeyta Says:

    A MIXED ENDING OF HAPPINESS AND SADNESS like Ariel hugging King triton her MERMAN FATHER.

    AN END OF A LUCKY WILD ANIMAL RESCUED AT THE BEGINNING AND RELEASED AT THE END. ZOO STORIES OR POOR ORPHAN NEW BORN ANIMALS. LIKE THE LIFE OF PI, OR THE FOX AND THE HOUND BY DISNEY.

    ENDINGS OF THE MAIN CHARACTERS ALL LEARNING THE SAME HELPFUL LESSON LIKE THEY DO IN THE LION KING.

    A MAGICAL POSITIVE ENDING LIKE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

    AN ENDING WITH CHARACTERS WHO HAVE ROOM TO GROW AND CHANGE THIS IS QUITE ENJOABLE.

    The book called THE LITTLE WHITE HORSE, and DINSEY’S MOVIE TANGLED I THINK THE ENDINGS ARE ENTERTAINING.

    Having adventures you didn’t expect and feeling pleased of yourself at the end like in DISEY’S MOVIE UP

    Series that are emotionally endless like FREE WILLY for example.

    An ending with the main heroine/ main hero finding where they belong by following their hearts like ALEU in BALTO 2 made by UNIVERSAL, or even ALADDIN in Disney favorites.

    AN ending of forgiveness like they show in ANTZ and A BUG’S LIFE

    An ending of self-confidence like in LITTLE DINOSUAR. A runt dinosaur has to learn about his strengths by wandering first.

    AN ending with PLEASURE like Disney’s old movie THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN it has JED who’s a famous WOLAMUTE, he helps a perseverant and courageous girl find her father.

    I JASMINE OLSON study the story’s core more than the cast of characters, and I also decide how much I like the ending by thinking about how I would feel if I experienced the same thing the main characters did, I’m happier when the GOOD CHARACTERS BEAT THE EVIL.

  6. henrietta abeyta Says:

    AGREE

    I OFTEN HAVE VISUALIZATIONS OF HELPING A WHOLE WOLF PACK TELL THE HUNTERS TO BACK OFF, EXCEPT I KNOW THE COST WOULD BE A HIGH PRICE. STILL I ADMIRE THE WOLVES’ SPIRIT AND APPERANCE TOO.

    I HAVE ENOUGH EMOTION INSIGHTS TO ONLY NEED VOCAL LANGUAGE TRANSLATIONS OF WOLF COMMUNICATION, I UNDERSTAND THEIR ATTITUDE EASILY, PROBABLY THANKS TO THEIR DOG COUSINS EXPRESS THEMSELVE PLUS HAVING 3 DISABILITIES I’VE BEEN THROUGH ENOUGH SIMILAR SITUATIONS TO HAVE SYMPATHY OF WHAT THE WOLVES HAVE BEEN THROUGH. MY COURAGE WOULD GET ME STARTED TO TRY TO HELP THE WOLF PACKS AND MY PAIN TOLERANCE TOO. RIGHT AWWOOO I’LL KEEP HOWLING WITH THE WOLVES. AWWOOO!

    WISE
    PRUDENT
    LOYAL
    ALWAYS VIGILANT, CLEAREST SIGN OF IT WHEN HUNTING
    NOBLE WHEN SENSIBLE
    BALANCED IN BEING COMPASSIONATE
    COURAGEOUS
    STRONG
    GOOD AT CONCENTRATING
    VERY WILLING TO ADMIT VITAL THINGS
    PROTECTIVE
    COOPERATIVE
    THEY HAVE AN EASY TIME ADAPTING
    THEY RESOLVE QUITE WELL
    THEY’LL SOMETIMES GUIDE LOST PEOPLE IN FORESTS
    PAIN OR ACCEPTING DIFFERENCES WOLVES ARE TOLERANT
    SATISFACTION AND INSPIRATION WOLVES FIND EASILY
    IT’S TRUE WOLVES ARE PEACEFUL IF THEY’RE NOT SCARED PREPARATION WOLVES REPEAT, NOT HOWLING AT LUNA!!
    THE WOLVES ARE SURE WILLING TO GAIN DETERMINATION

    SANCTUARIES, NATIONAL PARKS, ZOOS, AND SCIENTISTS WHO’VE HELPED WOLVES I’M GRATEFUL INDEED. THEY’RE SADLY MISUNDERSTOOD BY SEVERAL FARMERS AND ARE HURT GREEDILY BY HUNTERS WHO ALSO MISUNDERSTAND THEIR PACKS, BUT I UNDERSTAND WOLVES WELL ENOUGH WATCHING ONE OR READING WOLF LITERATURE THAT WOLVES FEEL LIKE MY GUIDANCE DEEP INSIDE. THANK YOU ALL VERY MUCH.

    JASMINE OLSON’S EXPRESSION OF EMOTIONAL IMAGINATION, ADMISSION OF HER OWN DANGER, GRATTITUDE TO THOSE WHO’VE THOUGHTFULLY HELPED WOLVES, AND AGREEMENT OF THERE BEING A COST TO GOOD BEATING EVIL.

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