The Tale of the Shining Princess, also known as The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, was probably written between the middle of the ninth and the middle of the tenth centuries. The account of the beautiful princess who came down to earth from the moon became one of Japan's best-loved tales, copied and illustrated many times over the centuries.
The central figure of the story is Kaguya-hime, who is discovered as a tiny girl, no more than three inches tall, in a stalk of bamboo. She is found by a poor bamboo cutter who takes her home to his wife cupped in his hands. She grows very quickly--it take only three months for her to reach full height--and the childless old couple are delighted to have a daughter to love as their own. The bamboo cutter was rewarded in a strange way: he began to find bamboo stalks filled with gold and became a wealthy man. Soon he was able to provde a luxurious lifestyle for his daughter, complete with a bevy of ladies-in-waiting (shown dressed in voluminous many-layered court robes).
Because she was the most beautiful woman in the land, men began to gather outside her house, some of them spending weeks there just hoping to catch a glimpse of her. In the end, five wealthy and important men remained as her devoted suitors. Unwilling to marry, she set impossible tasks for them, certain they would end in failure. Most of the story is devoted to the desperate, devious and invariably futile attempts to win her hand in marriage.
One suitor, for example, is asked to bring Kaguya-hime a robe made of the magic fur of Chinese fire-rats, a fur that cannot be burned in fire. Unfortunately, when the beautiful robe is put to the test, it sizzled and blazed and within minutes was burnt to ashes. Another suitor is asked to bring the princess a jewel from the head of a dragon. His attendants wisely refuse to do this job for him, and so he hires a small ship and trusty crew to seek the treasure himself. The accompanying illustration depicts a terrifying storm at sea. Yet another suitor is asked to bring a charm that helps swallows give birth to their young. He approaches this task by having himself hoisted to the swallows' nest under the eaves of his kitchen roof when the birds are about to give birth. Much to his embarrassment, the charms he scoops up turn out to be bird droppings.
Finally the emperor himself sought her favor and actually came to visit the princess (shown in a splendid long scene with the imperial carriage drawn up in front of the bamboo cutter's house), but she was forced to decline his advances. The time had come for her to return forever to the moon, and she warned that her people would come to take her home. On the day of the full moon the emperor sent two thousand soldiers to the bamboo cutter's house. Armed with bows and arrows they perched on the roof and walls of the house and watched the sky for the moon men, as shown in this scroll. When the king of the moon men suddenly descended from the sky riding in a chariot on white clouds, the soldiers were helpless with fear and astonishment.
Before departing the princess wrote a fond letter of farewell to her earthly parents. Then (in the fifth and final dramatic scene of the scroll), surrounded by heavenly beings, she rose up to the sky in the chariot that had been sent for her.