In the story of Kaguya-hime, also known as Taketori Monogatari (“The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”), a baby appears in a stalk of bamboo and is raised by a childless peasant couple. She grows into a ravishing beauty; is courted by important men, including the Emperor; refuses everyone, and in the end returns to her home on the moon. She leaves a note and some of the elixir of life for the Emperor, who (not wishing to live forever without her) burns them at the top of Mount Fuji. Everybody winds up alone—but it’s not really presented as a tragedy (nobody dies, for one thing). The ending is wistful, romantic, restrained: a comfortable story to wrap around an uncomfortable volcano.
Absence and aloneness crop up all over popular Western storytelling, but they’re often presented in terms of tragedy and disaster. A couple of exceptions: E.T. leaves for good, and everyone is sad, but also so happy for E.T. Same goes for Frodo (two very short characters—that’s a little weird). As for happy celibacy….You almost think that Jo in Little Women will get away with a rambunctious spinster-aunthood, I guess. (She doesn’t.)
Back in Japan, photographer Miwa Yanagi1 asks young women to imagine their older selves and, in a series called My Grandmothers, photographs them in scenes from these imagined futures. Sachiko drives to the airport and “surrender[s]…to the light.” Moeha dances in a desert. And Shizuka pauses in the midst of crafting a new body for herself. Not all of the “grandmothers” are pictured alone—but many are. How serene and fierce they look, how strong, in the solitudes they’ve chosen.
This fairy-tale file brought to you by Emerald Issue contributor Sarah Kortemeier.