I have no idea what inspired the once-great director Ichikawa Kon to overlay Lady Murasaki’s ca.790 tale of a bamboo-cutter who finds infant an infant girl to raise, Taketori Monogatari, with what looks like plagiarism of shots from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” along with intrusive influences of “E.T.” After two talky hours of romance, it all culminates with Peter Cetera’s “Stay With Me” (in English) under the closing credits.
In Muasaki’s tenth-century original, the bamboo cutter and his wife have not been able to produce children. “Princess from the Moon” (1987) ups the melodrama quotient from the beginning. Instead of finding the girl the bamboo cutter will name Nayotake-no-Kaguya-hime (“princess of flexible bamboos scattering light”) in a stalk of bamboo, the movie’s parents, unable to afford a doctor, have lost their five-year-old daughter and infant girl is breaking out of a golden shell near the daughter’s grave, not far from what looks like the site of a meteor crash (but, we will learn, was the crash of a spaceship from the moon of which she is the sole survivor). And instead of finding gold when he cuts bamboo after adopting the tiny girl (who grows rapidly into Sawguchi Yasuko), he gets rich selling pieces of the shell from which Kaguya hatched.
Grown up beautiful and the only child of very rich parents, Murasaki’s Kaguya has five princely suitors. The movie Kaguya has only three, one of whom, the most attractive, and the most sincere, royal council official Otomo (Nakai Kiichi (who went on to leading roles in “When the Last Sword Is Drawn,” “Warriors of Heaven and Earth,” etc.), is her choice. Kaguya sets each of the suitors an impossible task (the movie ones more so than the orginal text’s ones). Two of them attempt to fake the marvels they were sent to find and acquire. Otomo finds a dragon, but the dragon destroys Otomo’s boat rather than provide the treasure Kaguya specified. (The dragon destroying the vessel of its hunter was, apparently, footage shot for another movie about a sea serpent. It’
The 67-year-old Mifune Toshirô played a greedy and lazy bamboo cutter (Taketori), with veteran Wakao Ayako (Konk) playing the wife desperate to believe that the space alien is a reincarnation of her recently deceased daughter. Their roles are pretty flat, though with their new riches they and their daughter (the beautiful but vapid Sawaguchi Yasuko) get clothes to match those of the emperor and his court. Wada Emi (Ran, House of Flying Daggers) designed the costumes, which are easily the most outstanding (in a good way) aspect of the movie. Even for a Japanese movie, the characters have an impressive ability to maintain immobility, whether sitting cross-legged or back on their shins.
As the finale plagiarizes Spielberg, the score plagiarizes Handel. There are some beautifully composed scenes and the striking costumes, but there is no sense of wonder (as in “E.T.”) or any point other than to believe in magic (more specifically, to accept that human conceptions are limited) delivered before the banal and inapt “Stay With Me” and images of bamboo forest waving in the wind for the last four of the 122 minutes of the movie’s running time.
Among many other versions of the tale is a 2013 anime and a 1992 opera by Robert Moran, “From the Towers of the Moon,” inspired by the movie.
And though heavily promoted, “Princess” made less money than “Burmese Harp” had. Though the collapse of the Japanese movie studio business provides some explanation for the decline in quality of Ichikawa movies, I’d attribute it more to the loss of his wife, Natto Wada (1920-83), as a scenarist after some contributions to “Tokyo Olympiad” in 1965
©2016, Stephen O. Murray