IN The Shining Princess we are presented with a modern treasure book made from an antique treasure box and its contents. This magic results from felicitous collaboration among Sally Fisher, experts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Toppan Printing Company in Japan.
The well-known story, also called "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter," was first written in the 9th or 10th century and belongs to bird-maiden myths of many countries. This version bedame part of the folk literature of Japan, and near the end of the 18th century was illustrated in three sections for the powerful Tokugawa family. The silk-covered volumes were presented to one of the daughters in an exquisite made-to-order lacquer box (now owned by the Metropolitan) which she probably placed on display with her other book and letter boxes. Although the current text of The Shining Princess is an adaptation, most of the art work, from the stunning lid of the box to the last page of the original manuscript, is a meticulous reproduction.
Beneath the black and gold cover the ancient story is retold in a fresh, brisk style from the tanslation by Donald Keene. In nine short chapters Fisher skillfully narrates the tale of an old bamboo cutter who finds an entrancing baby girl no more than three inches tall in a stalk of bamboo. He and his wife are devoted parents to their new daughter and name her Nayotake no Kaguya-hime -- "The Shining Princess of Young Bamboo." Reaching young womanhood in an amazingly short time, she is surrounded by a mysterious glow that bestows good health and contentment on the couple. Kaguya-hime's astounding beauty attracts men from near and far, but her indifference to marriage discourages all but five determined nobles. Not surprisingly, the world's loveliest maiden demands that each suitor perform an impossible task to "prove him the most noble and deserving."
With gentle humor and simple, direct language, Fisher described the suitors' failures. The poems that pass between the lovesick men and Kaguya-hime are gracefully interpreted in the Oriental manner. When Prince Kuramochi brings a false jeweled branch instead of the real one from a tree in Paradise, Kaguya-hime sends him away with this couplet: "A clever, attractive fake is a confusing thing; and that is what you have in common with these blossoms." After the emperor himself falls in love with her, Kaguya-hime confesses sadly that she is on earth in temporary banishment from the moon to which she must return. Finally, the glowing moon "immortals" come for her, and not even the emperor's warriors can fight off the unearthly power that forces sorrowful Kaguya-hime to don the feathered robe of forgetfulness and vanish with them.
Like most fairy tales, The Shining Princess has modern overtones: the humorously cautious obedience of servants dealing with an irrational master; the appearance of an extraterrestrial irresistible force antedating Close Encounters by more than a thousand years; and the notion that banishment to our world is punishment in itself.
The outstanding distinction of the book is its opulent illustrations, which reveal much about life in old Japan, often by the fascinating convention of Japanese painting that removes the roofs of houses so the viewer can see what's going on inside. In five brilliant colors plus hand-processed gold and silver, a panorama of characters and their surroundings are lavishly detailed in the classical style. Thirteen single-page illustrations and five double-page spreads bring the princess, her foster parents, and the courtly gentlemen to life, reinforcing the text's expressions of the Japanese love of beauty, poetry and exquisite courtesy. I found myself poring over the elaborate pages of The Shining Princess again and again, discovering particulars that I had missed before. To explain what might be puzzling to youngsters about Japanese customs, there are intriguing notes on the story and illustrations by Donald Keene and Andrew Pekarik respectively.
As in the original, this book ends with the emperor's final melancholy poem, its flowing calligraphy adorning the last golden page. CAPTION:
Illustration, no caption, From "The tale of the Shining Princess"