Leaving Family for the Princess Kaguya

In a movie filled with fantastic (and fantastical) sequences, it’s one near the end of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya that stands out as both thrilling and questionable. Kaguya is a magical being who has grown into a beauty that is proposed to by suitors far and wide, including the emperor, but feels burdened and stifled by a courtly life. She returns to her initial earthly home in the countryside, where she encounters Sutemaru, a boy with whom she was reared and for whom she has immense affection. Kaguya explains that she wants to be with Sutemaru, who is at first reticent—why would she want to leave the kingdom to be among a starving, wandering people? But he is eventually overcome by his love for her and the two embrace before going on a flight the rival of Aladdin and Jasmine’s magic carpet ride. However, as Kaguya nears the moon—her true home, from which a procession will soon come to take her home—she falls to the ocean below, out of Sutemaru’s arms, though he promised to hold on to her and keep her safe.

Oh, but did I mention just prior to this scene, we see Sutemaru with his family group, including a wife and child? This is no Hollywood romance—Sutemaru, though he once pined for Kaguya, was under no illusion that he could marry her. He instead wed someone in his own class, and though he must support his young family, Sutemaru quickly decides to desert them upon finding Kaguya again.

Thus, a romantic interlude begins with a questionable decision and ends in failure.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a story some 1,000 years old, and yet Isao Takahata’s envisioning of it fits wells in a modern context. Like many women today and yesterday, Kaguya feels inhibited by the entire world around her, filled with individuals who tell her exactly what is that will make her happy. Kaguya generally wants to do the exact opposite of what she’s told.

Kaguya abandons her kimono and the life that pulls her down

But while the movie revolves around the titular character, Sutemaru’s role is also an interesting one and just as transposable to a modern context. Beaten down and disappointed by the world, Sutemaru finds a chance to escape mundanity and into the arms of beautiful woman who makes him feel more than who he is. It seems to be a situation more cinematic than realistic, but countless broken marriages speak that his story is reality.

The truth is, many men will encounter situations like Sutemaru’s, with only slight variances. Social class may not matter. Beauty may not either. Position, occupation, and class may all differ, but desire, pride, exhaustion—these are the elements likely to stay the same. While many men—maybe Sutemaru among them—would proudly state they would not give into to impropriety if tempted, the answer becomes cloudy and more difficult to navigate when a Princess Kaguya is right before you with open arms.

Ultimately, Sutemaru doesn’t make the proper choice. Although it can be argued on one hand that dreams and magic may have led Sutemaru to make a decision he would not have under normal circumstances, it can equally be said that Sutemaru knew exactly what he was doing, and that he failed twice—first in being faithful to his family and then in keep his promise to hold onto Kaguya. After the flying sequence, Sutemaru awakes in the field, and deeming it all a dream, returns to his family and once again is a doting father. The choice was made for him when he failed to do what he should have.

In their utter weakness, men who encounter such situations should be grateful if something unexpected, perhaps even otherworldly, prevents them from going through with an adulterous relationship. But Sutemaru teaches us that such a roadblock is unlikely—it would take a moon goddess for such to occur (!)—and that our lives must be predicated on love, that which binds us to wives and children and siblings and parents, and which provides strength when foolishness and weaknesses (among other things) ceases control. A flight to the moon results in a crash to the ground—should we all be able to do what Sutemaru was not, though, and stay planted in reality, both in harshness and beauty.

This article is part of our month long series on Studio Ghibli films—we invite you to check out the previous articles and continue with our journey until the end of September. You can purchase The Tale of Princess Kaguya on Amazon.


12 thoughts on “Leaving Family for the Princess Kaguya

  1. Great review! I’m glad that you focused on that scene at the end of the film, which soured me on it considerably. I’m planning to rewatch it and get a fresh evaluation. I really want to embrace the film, and will try to engage with it in a manner that I can do so.

    1. You know, I think it’s a “fair scene.” Even though Sutemaru is fairly likes le, he’s flawed, and it shows through his choice. And Kaguya just seems ignorant of her love’s family. Ultimately, I don’t think this celebrates adultery, but examines two people who are swept up on circumstances and may have ended up with each other if things had fallen their way.

      I believe it’s worth a rewatch! I’d be interested to know how you evaluate this scene this time around.

  2. Hi, I wanted to ask a question regarding Sutemaru’s character. Nearing the end of the film, it shows him carrying his child and a wife walking behind him. Why did the director choose to have him marry someone else or more importantly why did Sutemaru choose to marry someone else?

    1. I think both the original fable and the themes of the story dictated these decisions. Sutemaru exists as a character, I think, basically to show Kaguya’s “could have been life” and the pull of that simple, rural life she had and at many points longs for. The story, of course, has her returning to the moon. She can’t have that. Could it be, then, that Sutemaru’s choice to marry makes sense in a variety of ways? 1) On a rational level, he feels he has to move on, without any hope of finding / marrying Kaguya as the point he does choose to get married; 2) Kaguya must “reject” that life, as well as courtly one, to meet her ultimate destiny; 3) It shows that rural life, as much as it seemed magical (especially to a child and in comparison to courtly life), is wracked with imperfection as well? 4) To create a dramatic final encounter that continues the dreamy and sad tone of the narrative.

  3. I know for certain that Sutermaru truly cared about Kaguya and didn’t just care about her looks or appearence. I know this because during the last scene they had with each other, I closely analyzed all his face expressions and dialogue and realized then that he truly had feelings for her. However, I noticed that he was somewhat in disbelief when she said she wanted to be with him. This made me disgusted by his response. Couldn’t he have just told her the truth instead of eagerly wanting to live with her, deserting his son and wife in the process? And if he was alone why couldn’t he prevent her from falling to the ground, was he not worthy because he was unfaithful?

    1. I agree with your assessment here. As for why he couldn’t prevent her from falling…perhaps you’re right? I’m afraid I can’t give a better theory without rewatching the scene. It’s been a while, now. :/

  4. Why do people think that Sutemaru was selfish? I mean I know that he was a douchebag who was willing to abandon his wife and son but still he did so because Kaguya was the girl he always had such a strong bond with and the girl who he spent and shared most of his childhood experiences with.

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head. Transpose to real life and being put in a less fantastical but similar situation. A man who would abandon his family for his first love is making a selfish decision—he’s picking himself above the lives of two other people who depend on him (especially in that society) and affecting the trajectory of their lives for “love.” Of course, as he chooses love he would be choosing not to love two other people who are more bonded to him. Men make similar decisions every day, and though I can “understand” them, they’re still selfish and hurtful decisions.

  5. I understand what you mean, I’m only 13 years old and coincidently Korean like you. Unlike you who is a dad, I’m still learning a lot about life and maturing with age, so I may not see the world as clearly as you do. Thanks for your responses, I’ll remember them well.

  6. I think the philosophy of this story is simple, if you look at it from the moon people’s perspective. I think that they wanted Kaguya to be a princess or at least be well-known on Earth, that’s why they gave her money and clothes, but if she wasn’t satisfied with what they had given her and wanted a different life then they would have to send her back to her home. This shows us that the moon people are portrayed as controlling “parents” like the dad who want Kaguya to be successful rather than living her life as a “peasant.” Therefore, when she went against their wishes by calling for help they felt that she was not ready or mature enough to live on Earth, so they took her back to the moon. In parts of the film we saw that she strayed from the path that she was destined to take because the memories of the environment she grew up in and knew so well had stayed with her, even when she was living a wealthy lifestyle and forced to be a different person.

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