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.
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.