Kaguyahime: Shimizu Reiko

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter has long been a favourite of mine, if only because every time I come across it, I am honestly blown away by the fact that I’m reading a story that is over a thousand years old. Someone wrote this story before the dodo went extinct, before English really existed, before the invention of buttons. Buttons!! And here I am sitting here in the future, walking around with a machine that contains my whole brain in my pocket, reading that very same story. I feel the same weird, overwhelming connection with the past when I come upon a really huge old tree. The idea that something—anything!—could have existed and continue to exist on such a time frame is incomprehensible. And yes, I’m sure the Bamboo Cutter has shifted and changed over those years, but so has that tree. It’s still the same tree, though. 

The story itself is pretty great. A childless couple find a baby inside a stalk of bamboo and decide to raise her as their own. She grows into an incredibly beautiful and talented princess, so everyone wants to marry her. But she is not particularly into marriage, so she sets impossible tasks for her would-be suitors. It turns out she’s actually from the moon, and her moon family’s coming for her. Many tears and trials later, Kaguya is flying back to the moon and has forgotten everything to do with her earthly life. There’s some stuff about an elixir of immortality and the emperor pining away for her after that, but that’s the gist of the whole thing. 

I only give this overview of the story so that we can all know what we’re getting into here. I’ve enjoyed many, many different versions of this story, because, as I said, I really like it, so whenever I come across a different adaptation, I am eager to sit down with it and see what the artist brings to this ancient tale. (One! Thousand! Years! Old!!) My current favourite is The Tale of the Princess Kaguya directed by Takahata Isao, if only because the animation is so, so breathtakingly beautiful. But I also like the focus he places on Kaguyahime herself, how she grows and loves the world around her, and how her story can be read as a feminist commentary on the restrictions placed upon women then and now. The great thing about Bamboo Cutter is that it has all these hooks artists can hang their own ideas and themes on. 

Another rendition I thought was interesting was Kaguyaden by Saito Chiho, which posits that Kaguya wasn’t the only moon princess stuck on earth. This one also takes place in the Heian era, but eventually gets bogged down in weird side plots and love triangles and resurrections from the dead, and now I don’t even know what is happening in it. 

All of which is to say, when I was noodling around a Book Off over the New Year’s holiday, lured in by their promise of a big sale, and I happened across Kaguyahime on the bunko manga shelves, I naturally picked it up. With its tough schoolgirl against the backdrop of the moon on the cover, it promised yet another spin on this classic story, so I was all in. And having read the first volume, I can honestly say I have never encountered a Kaguya even remotely resembling this one before. 

It’s bonkers right out of the gate. The first page has a quick overview of the Bamboo Cutter, presumably setting us up for what we’re about to read, but no. Next up is a hot (probably—I can never tell with nineties manga) foreigner looking at art in a gallery. There’s a pretty funny moment where the gallery staff guy is forced to try and speak English, and then next thing you know, fire! And maybe a bomb!! The gallery is evacuated, and our foreign friend is joined by someone with flamethrowers. The two proceed to torch the gallery, and we cut to a random high school. 

At this point, I’m thinking, okay, so maybe Shimizu is making this Kaguya into a modern-day military thing, and these two arsonists are trying to carry out one of the impossible tasks she sets her suitors. Like an in medias res start to the whole thing. Our high school protagonist Akira could be living a double life, student by day, moon princess by night. Except we learn that Akira was found buried in a bamboo grove and miraculously survived as a baby, and now she lives with her adopted family, classmate Mayu and Mayu’s mother Shoko, and Shoko is shady as fuck. (Here is your content warning for abuse. I’m not going to describe it, but know that it is in the book, and decide whether you want to pick this one up.) 

So Akira is just trying to get by as a 15-year-old adoptee who was buried in a bamboo grove when our arsonists appear out of nowhere and totally kidnap her. By helicopter. That lands on the grounds of Akira’s apparently massive adopted home?? Lots of questions and we’re only just getting started. 

Akira wakes up in a room full of US military paraphanilia, greeted by a woman dressed in a leather corset and when I got to the panel that zoomed in on her boobs in that corset, I wished I wasn’t reading this on the train. So anyway, the arsonists, Yui and Midori, turn out to have been orphans raised on the same island as Akira until they all fled the island at the age of five because they found out that they were to be sacrificed to Kaguyahime. Yeah, the moon princess is real, and she wants to literally devour your flesh. 

I have to say, I did not see murderous Kaguyahime coming. Nor was I expecting the US military to be running a training camp for teenagers on this island the kids fled from ten years earlier, a training camp that is apparently famous (note: not infamous; people seem to dig this part of things) for maiming and murdering the teenagers who participate. When the obviously telegraphed disaster happens, the US military stridently denies any responsibility for the thing that they are so clearly responsible for, and honestly, it’s the most realistic part of this manga. 

At the end of volume one, I am left with more questions than answers. And not the usual cliffhanger, end-of-a-volume questions, but real existential type stuff, like why is this called Kaguyahime? Why did Shimizu turn the famed moon princess into the bloodthirsty god of a death cult? How can a 15-year-old be allowed to pilot a military jet? Is the corset woman trying to get kicked out of the military? Is that why she continually eschews her uniform in favour of BDSM leathers even though she is a sergeant?

Based on the batshit trajectory of this first volume, my hopes are extremely low for anything resembling an answer to any of these questions. This is how it starts, and it is twenty-seven volumes long! Twenty-seven! Where can it even go from such a bananas beginning?? I expect there will only be more questions introduced, never to be answered, until at last there is an entirely unpredictable end to this story, which satisfies no one, but makes us all feel like we have been on an extremely wild ride together. 


  1. Batshit (crazy) is really the only way to describe this manga, and like you (I think) I’m all here for that. Sadly, the French translation I was buying for this stopped mid series years ago, so I still don’t know how everything wraps up. But given Shimizu’s other series, I actually have good faith everything somehow gets tied together.

    I’m not sure if you were into the English manga scene in the mid 2000s, but one of the weirder (and best) products of the manga boom was the DC owned label, CMX. For their initial shoujo titles they picked the most wildly non-commercial (and, to me at the time, *thrilling*) choices… Extremely popular titles in Japan of course, but such odd choices for the NA market especially with zero attempt to specially market them as classics. Want 70s shoujo? Here’s Swan and From Eroica with Love! Howabout some 80s stuff? Here’s Cipher and Moon Child…

    Moon Child was the only title I didn’t recognize, but I took a chance on it because Reiko Shimizu’s art was so gorgeous, and really, I was buying any pre ’90s shoujo that would get a release (which didn’t amount to much). And it became a favourite. I only bring it up because it was Shimizu’s manga immediately before Kaguyahime, and shares a ton of the batshit insanity (maybe even more?) and yet, ultimately I found really emotionally involving, and satisfying. Shaenon Garrity covered it years back in her overlooked manga blog, and I think does the best job with an attempt at a plot description (oh, this time the fairy tale basis for the plot–ostensibly–is The Little Mermaid):

    “So. Moon Child is about a race of shape-changing, psychic, hermaphroditic alien fish who come to Earth every few centuries to assume human form and spawn (but with each other, not with humans). They were the inspiration for human myths about mermaids and the targets of medieval witch hunts, the latter of which decimated their numbers. Now, according to prophecy, their hope for the future rests on one of their number, the half-human child of the actual, historical Little Mermaid. This child appears to be a small, amnesiac boy named Jimmy who lives with an abusive Broadway dancer, but when Jimmy lies in the moonlight he transforms into a beautiful woman named Benjamin. Jimmy also is haunted by a couple of twin boys, probably inspired by those creepy girls in The Shining. Really, though, it’s a story about nuclear water pollution.”

    (Here’s the link with some art: https://shaenon.livejournal.com/54616.html#cutid1 )

    So it’s obvious why Shimizu became a favourite of mine, I should hope, and I was thrilled that Kaguahime was being published in French. Like I said, it’s been in limbo for a decade, but Shimizu’s long running josei series Himitsu, which is more conventional, which isn’t saying a lot, but the best of its supernatural procedural genre, is still coming out in French. (And would be something I think could have done well in English with a cross over readership–it even has an anime they could promote it with, but what do I know…)

    Whenever someone says that there’s no chance for a classic *or* obscure old school shoujo title, especially one that has numerous taboo relationships, to get an official English release, I point them towards CMX and Moon Child. Of course then again, no one seemed to pay them any attention, and they folded after five years (meaning Swan and Eroica remain unfinished at 15 volumes each, though Cipher and Moon Child did get to the finish line.)

    1. Thanks for this! I had no idea that Shimizu had this history in both English and Japanese. I just grabbed this one off the shelves at Book-Off. I’ll have to check out Moon Child, too!

  2. Hi, I’m one of the lucky people that have read the intere Kaguya Hime in Europe (that’s because I’m Italian and Italian is the only language in which this unfortunate series has been completed, thanks to the incessant requests of the few but loud fans of it) and I love it. I think it’s one of mine favourite shōjo of all time (if not my favourite), it’s strange, and yes it will stir so many questions but, in my opinion, will also give you the answers. It’s a retelling, a sci-fi/fantasy/many other things you will discover during the reading but, at its core, it’s a new spin to a very old tale. It’s long and complicated like many other series of those years but I’ve found in it what I want in a manga. I also read and loved Himitsu by the same author, a procedural manga with a couple of interesting twists (one sci-fi and the other ethical) but Kaguya Hime has a special spot in my heart of manga reader.
    PS: browsing the web you can also find a graduation paper on Kaguya Hime (but it’s full of spoilers so…)

    1. Was Moon Child translated in Italian? It seems to be a VERY rare example of a major Shimizu manga that has been translated into English and not into any other European language (that I know) when it’s usually the opposite.

      I am *extremely* jealous of the amount of classic shoujo manga you Italians have (Orpheus’ Window, KazeKi, and now Cruel God Reigns… wow)–if only I had went to Italian immersion rather than French 😉 I’m glad to hear Kaguyahime was completed there–I know, like in French, it remains unfinished in Spanish.

      1. No, Moon Child was never translated in Italian. A friend of mine has found the entire US edition, but now it’s impossible to find. So I haven’t read it. I only read Kaguya Hime and Himitsu (first in French, then in Italian)
        I think there’s is a strong reason why there are many classic manga (not only shōjo) and it’s thanks to the transmission of the (heavily censored) anime in the late ’70, ’80 and ’90. But, just to make an example, Versailles no Bara has now 3 of 4 editions in Italian and it’s well known and loved, Orpheus no Mado is practically unknown and didn’t sell so well. Let’s just say it’s always a risk to publish classic shōjo manga because they’re not so well loved or famous like shōnen of the same time period. So we catch every occasion we have, but Reiko Shimizu is not considered one of the classic shōjo authors so, not many hopes to see other manga by her in my Country.
        Same goes for Yumi Tamura, nothing by her has ever been published in Italy, not even her actual hit manga Mystery to Iu Nakare.
        Let’s just say the manga market is full of mysteries and it’s almost impossible to understand how some titles arrive in our hands. I simply consider myself fortunate in having studied English and French so, if I don’t find what I want in Italian, at least I have two more markets to peruse in the hope to find it.

    2. Oh, wow! I had no idea that this had been published in its entirety in Italian. From what you say, this is an even more amazing series than I thought. I’ll have to keep reading!

      1. Well I am one of the members of Reiko Shimizu’s fandom (we call ourselves Principessiani, we also made T-shirts for us), let’s just say that I tempted a couple of friends (or maybe even more) to read it. It’s not the easiest manga to read but I think it’s such a journey and it has much more courage in portraying the ugliness insite humanity than many modern shōjo manga.

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