竹取物語 Taketori Monogatari
Taketori monogatari "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter" is a story that made its way to Japan from China, and evolved into its present form by about 960 C.E. In a famous passage in Genji monogatari "The Tale of Genji" (ca. 1010), Taketori is referred to as "the progenitor of all tales". So, what's it about?
The old bamboo cutter of the title one day comes across a stalk of bamboo that glows at its base, and opening it up, finds a tiny girl inside. Chalking their meeting up to fate, he takes her home to his wife, to rear as their child. The girl literally fills their house with her light, and grows into a renowned beauty and, known as Kaguya Hime "Princess of Light", is pursued by several noblemen and even the Emperor. Despite her lack of interest, the nobles who seek to marry her persist, and she eventually sends each off on an impossible quest. Each man declares his resolve to succeed, only to return later and attempt to deceive the Princess into thinking that he has completed his impossible task. She repeatedly sees through their dissembling, and each in turn gives up and departs, disappointed. The Emperor, too, in the end has his suit rejected.
In time, the Princess reveals to her earthly parents that she is actually not of their world, but a visitor from the moon who has come "for a while", and tearfully explains that she has now served her time in this world, and must therefore return to the moon. A retinue from the moon arrives to escort her home, easily repels the Emperor's troops, and fly off with her into the sky.
Her parents and the Emperor are inconsolable, and the tale ends with the Emperor burning his mementos of her, setting the smoke billowing from Mt. Fuji that continues "to this day".
In addition to its folktale-like elements, such as the human encounter with an otherworldly being, the Taketori monogatari that has come down to us was also, in some respects, a creation of and for the Heian nobility, as is evident in its poking fun at the several worthies who seek the Princess's hand in marriage.
The narration and dialogue in Taketori employ a wealth of basic words, phrasings, and sentence and discourse patterns, all of them useful in reading other narratives of the Heian period and later. The story is carried forward in relatively simple sentences, supported by varied but straightforward reference to places, times, people and objects. Linguistically and rhetorically, these selections from Taketori monogatari add up to a good starter kit for any aspiring reader of earlier Japanese!