An unbiased plot summary of KAGUYAHIME

“Fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.” (The Song of Solomon)

Kaguyahime, NDTI 1991, Photo Roger-Viollet

Kaguyahime, NDTI 1991, Photo Roger-Viollet

The word “surreal” nestles between “surprise” and “surrender” in most dictionaries.

1) “Having the intense irrational reality of a dream;”

2) “to strike with wonder or amazement esp. because unexpected (as noun)/ an attack made without warning (verb);”

3) “the action of yielding one’s person…into the power of another” (Websters’s Dictionary)

 All prove unexpectedly useful when trying to think about what happened in, and your reactions to, this most unusual and practically indescribable ballet.

Maki Ishii’s score gives us the live collaboration of Western percussionists with Japanese experts of Kodo and Gagaku. Jirí Kylián, inspired by the music, uses one of the first recorded stories in Japanese literature, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, to frame the action on stage.  Yet there is nothing “Japanese-y” about the staging, the choreography, the over-all message. This piece embodies a universal lament:  since the beginning of time men continue to blame women for arousing their own testosterone-driven impulses to commit violence.

ACT I  [40 minutes]

She, Kaguyahime the goddess of the moon, slowly prepares to descend to earth.  There she intends to walk carefully through its bamboo forests. Some part of her hesitates to encounter the earth’s fearsome aliens: us humans, but curiosity consumes her. She tests the ground with her feet gently – for her as weird a sensation as walking on the moon for us.

The music will illustrate this contrast between the celestial and the earthy throughout. The hypnotic rustle of the Gagaku winds, made of bamboo, belong to Kaguyahime’s world.  Harmonious and refined, Gagaku has provided the exquisite soundtrack to imperial court ceremonies for over a thousand years.  Buoyant and vigorous, Kodo drums are the sound of village festivities, they celebrate us in all our primal human power. Indeed, this is one piece where you may be excused for leaning forward to look into the orchestra pit:  the magnificent drummers seem to be dancing themselves.

Men in white, the “suitors” from the village, steal in and push around boxes (the symbolism escapes me). Each vies for her attention by dancing a solo of increasing intensity. Soon it becomes clear that they all wish to seduce her.  The last one actually manages to touch her, but cannot hold on to her. She manages to keep eluding his grasp.

The ground cleaves open to create a living sea of red colors.  The women of this village take over the stage and dance in a wild and jumpy way, pulling the men back into their orbit. Boxes are pushed around, opened and shut (the symbolism escapes me).  Kaguyahime finds herself literally hoisted onto a pedestal. But do they wish to celebrate or isolate her?

When conflict begins, we should not be surprised.  Those in black are the Mikado’s (Emperor’s) minions  — call them knights or nobles or…just…more… men.  This is not class struggle, however, for they fight about only one thing:  a woman.

The goddess of the moon is bewildered and sad. Why such a mess?  How could this be her fault?

O! Withered is the garland of the war,/The soldier’s pole is fallen; young boys and girls/Are level now with men; the odds is gone,/And there is nothing left remarkable/Beneath the visiting moon.” [Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, Act IV]

Intermission [20 minutes]

ACT II  [30 minutes]

            Very violent drumming. One musician almost bashes in the face of a drum shaped like “the man on the moon.” The noise could even remind you of helicopters, the sound associated with combat. A local dispute has escalated into a major war where even women join the battle. Trapped by the competitive violence her beauty has evoked, Kaguyahime – as hapless as Helen of Troy – lets herself be pulled to and fro by a boy, a couple…

The gentle moon goddess tries to cover her ears, to hide, increasingly fearful of what she has wrought merely by having shown her shimmering self to us.

The stage is invaded by a billowing golden curtain. Our goddess finds herself engulfed in the manipulative and more than intoxicating embrace of the Emperor.  At first he seems quite the boor, stomping in with his two henchmen, but something about him fascinates her. She gets pushed and pulled in a tortured quartet and then abruptly finds herself alone. Perhaps, her solo suggests, the emperor – of all these men – has touched her heart? Could he possibly be more than a mere man? Perhaps slightly divine?

More wild drumming than you could ever imagine.  The army returns. The moon goddess suffers being beset by shields, mirrors, blocks: has the Emperor arranged all this new confusion?  He wants her.  And she does to, as becomes clear in a tense and too short duet(I lament how little stage-time Kylián allots the Emperor).

But this proves a most intelligent goddess.  Frightened by the awful covetousness of humans, their endless capacity for jealousy and their easy willingness to kill each other over all unimportant things, Kaguyahime decides to leave this planet.

She summons the brightest light. After the Emperor leaves her be –  descending as calmly as a sunset — she ascends regretfully back to her home in the sky, so very sorry that we have all disappointed her dreams of life amongst us.

With how sad Steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!/ How silently, and with how wan a face!/ What! May it be that even in heavenly place/ That busy archer his sharp arrows tries? [Sir Philip Sidney, “Astrophel and Stella.”]

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6 réponses à “An unbiased plot summary of KAGUYAHIME

  1. I wondered whether the boxes were not supposed to be the symbol of the willingness to grasp and to store what can’t be taken or kept… a symbol of human beings as belonging to the world of desire or attachment. Please excuse my poor English. I liked your review so much that, as I couldn’t come to Paris, I bought a dvd… well, reflection of the moon might be better than no moon at all…

    • Cléopold

      … And the DVD doesn’t fully record the beauty of the ballet. The sound is too crisp and the image too « shadowy ». Your explanation of the meaning of the boxes is very interesting, Noor.

    • Fenella

      Forget about « your English. » It’s perfect, like your analysis of the boxes…thank you! May I cite it in my review of three casts? By the way, the video is too awful, and I am sorry I inspired you to buy it. So darkly lit. Pretentious angles. And in no way does the film render the bittersweet joy of the dance and wonderful noise of the orchestra. All is dampened down, dull, harsh. Honestly? I keep falling asleep in front of the DVD when I have to prepare a talk. And NEVER feel the slightest bit sleepy when I see it live.
      When I tried to show parts of that DVD to friends I found myself begging for them — their eyes revealed desperation « oh, god, what has she gotten us into » — to believe that two hours hence they would see a real and true thing. For even if the goddess finds us disappointing, on stage her trajectory is not. Kylian proves hard to film…the DVD that includes the glorious « Birthday » almost captures his subtlety…

      • Thank you ! Please use any piece you might find useful. In fact, I thought that the ballet could not escape some Buddhist themes, as it shows very well how desire – grasping – leads to anger – conflict, war – by nourishing jealousy – as the willingness to keep for oneself what could be offered to all. Not quite a miracle, considering that it is inspired by a Japanese tale, but I liked the boxes as a nice way to show human beings’ grasping, and even their ignorance – when they prevent such a beauty from touching the ground, though she came to be one among them – to some extent.

        Don’t be disappointed for the dvd – though pretentious, it can’t totally hide how clever the choreography is, or how beautiful it is to dance in such a way. Though nothing is meant to be exotic, the steps are true to some spirit of wisdom which you might find when your gaze begins to wander in the bamboo forest near the lake, next to the mountain, in some old painting from the XIIIth century… I had a taste of this beauty and shall wait until we meet at last – at least it inspired me, and I filled the gap between the pale reflection and reality by contemplating the shimmering poetry of the nice texts I could read.