The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter
Author | Anonymous
Original Language | Japanese
First Published | 10th century
Alternate Title | The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Original Title | Taketori Monogatari
The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is referred to in The Tale of Genji as the “ancestor of all romances.” It is also the oldest surviving Japanese work of fiction. There are various theories regarding the exact date of its writing, but it is believed to have appeared late in the ninth century or early in the tenth century. Yasunari Kawabata, one of Japan’s finest modern novelists, unveiled his modern re-telling in 1998.
The story is of Kaguya-hime, an exceptionally beautiful princess who was found by an old bamboo cutter when only a baby. Her beauty takes possession of the men of Japan and, in an attempt to see her married, her bamboo-cutter guardian chooses five suitors for her. The coldhearted Kaguya-hime, unwilling to marry, sets these suitors impossible tasks. The largely devious suitors use their money and position to try to convince the princess that they have completed
their tasks. One prince sets a team of workers to work day and night to make the princess a golden branch; another pays a man in China to find a robe that will not burn.
Each incidence of failure provides a proverb. An ill-starred adventure is “plum foolish” because the grand counselor, on failing to bring a dragon’s jewel back to the princess, replaces his eyes with stones that look like plums. Masayuki Miyata’s illustrations of the Kawabata version are wonderful and almost warrant a reading of the book alone.