Within ‘The Tales of Heike’, a story called ‘The Princess Who Loves Insects’ emerges. The princess, known to be the inspiration behind the character Nausicaä, is indeed a lover of insects, as her title suggests.
In the contemporary age, this might not raise eyebrows, but during the late Heian period when this story was penned, princesses were expected to appreciate universally acclaimed ‘beauty,’ such as butterflies and flowers. This princess, in contrast, was a connoisseur of what many might find eerie – insects. She collected them, observed their metamorphoses, and even declared her genuine affinity towards caterpillars’ contemplative expressions.
According to her, those obsessing over flowers and butterflies were shallow. She championed authenticity and the pursuit of the essential nature of things. She aimed to perceive not the superficial but the inherent core of existence.
Such beliefs led her to be indifferent to her own appearance. Unfazed by societal norms, she didn’t blacken her teeth or pluck her eyebrows. Instead, she exhibited her natural white teeth with a beaming smile, caring for her beloved insects day and night.
Her scientific curiosity and non-judgmental affection towards insects resonate strongly with Nausicaä. Society’s reaction, however, to this unconventional princess was arguably harsher than what Nausicaä faced.
Her parents criticized her passion as “strange,” “unseemly,” and “a cause of embarrassment.” But she retorted with firm indifference. She reasoned that the silk coveted by many was the product of silkworms that hadn’t yet had the chance to fly. When they transformed into butterflies, they became hollow. Yet, even as she challenged her parents’ views, she remained behind a screen, as it was better for “women and demons to remain unseen.”
During the Heian period, noblewomen seldom made public appearances. In this regard, the princess adhered to conventions. But, her independent thought process is evident in her words and actions.
She might have been revered as a strong-willed woman in the present age, but her handmaidens belittled her, whispering derisive comments behind her back.
“Imagine serving the princess who prefers caterpillars over butterflies.”
“That must be tough. Our princess’s eyebrows are as bushy as caterpillars.”
“Her gums resemble a molting caterpillar.”
“Well, with all these caterpillars, she doesn’t need clothes.”
Unlike Nausicaä, who was beloved by her people, “The Princess Who Loves Insects” becomes a figure of ridicule among her servants.
In that era, women of high rank plucked their eyebrows and darkened their teeth. A princess who cared little for her appearance and voiced her own thoughts openly was viewed as an extraordinary “oddity.”
Viewed through the lens of modernity, it’s indeed peculiar to imagine individuals sporting black teeth and bare brows, all while wearing smiles. Yet in the late Heian period, “The Princess Who Adores Insects” is the one perceived as the anomaly. This fact strikingly illustrates how societal norms and beauty standards can drastically shift depending on the epoch, thus rendering the tale fascinating in its own right.
The unconventional princess, however, did pique some interest even in her time… The narrative continues.
A particular nobleman, intrigued by the rumors surrounding the princess, decides to test her courage. He gifts her a snake-like artifact, assuming it would frighten her. The princess, though, remains unperturbed by the intimidating present. Her serenity shocks her maids who flee the scene, laughter trailing in their wake. Such instances further illuminate the profound loneliness endured by ‘The Princess Who Love Insects.’
The curious nobleman doesn’t stop there. He disguises himself as a woman, along with his companions, to covertly observe the princess. During their espionage, they overhear the princess expressing her admiration for the caterpillars, sympathizing with their exposure to the sun. She instructs a boy tasked with ‘insect duty’ to carefully collect each one, emphasizing not to drop any. Since her maids detested insects, the princess entrusted the job to lower-ranking boys unafraid of the creatures. She even named the insects—’beetles,’ ‘grasshoppers,’ and the like—and enlisted them as aides.
In the princess’s stratum of society, it would be expected for her to communicate through intermediaries with boys of lower social standing. Yet, she directly issues instructions, and her attire, possessions, and behaviors are reminiscent of a boy’s. Despite this, she possesses a pleasing figure and luxurious, abundant hair.
“What a pity. Such a beautiful woman, why does she indulge in these eccentricities?” the nobleman ruminates. Spotting the spying, the princess quickly conceals the caterpillar in her sleeve. Afterwards, the nobleman exchanges poems with the princess’s maids, using the caterpillar as the thematic centerpiece, concluding the narrative.
As the tale winds down, it leaves readers with lingering emotions and unsolved mysteries. One can’t help but wonder about the future awaiting the princess and the nobleman. The story’s end comes without satisfying these curiosities.
This brief tale spanning only a few pages imprints a vivid impression upon encounter. The storyline—centred on a noble maiden with an unconventional fascination for caterpillars, her philosophical leanings, her shunning of traditional adornments as if merging with her beloved insects, yet all the while retaining her beauty—is striking. Her insightful perspective challenges the prevailing societal constructs about women, encapsulated in the phrase, “Demons and women ought best to remain unseen.” She seems to exist beyond the conventions of gender and social hierarchy. The possibility of her navigating the rift between her idiosyncrasies and societal norms as she matures remains endlessly captivating.
The maid’s sneering suggestion, “with all these furry catepillars, you don’t need clothes,” seems to evoke an erotic image of a young girl’s body, swarming with caterpillars. The stark contrast of a caterpillar and a stunning girl, coupled with the portrayal of a cross-dressing nobleman and a princess in masculine attire towards the tale’s conclusion, prompts us to reconsider the ever-shifting boundaries between beauty and repulsion, male and female, convention and anomaly.
I detect a parallel narrative structure in the tale of Nausicaä. Almost three decades ago, upon my initial viewing of the film, I perceived it as a world engulfed in a toxic miasma. In the wake of a nuclear disaster (Fukushima), however, that world now emanates a disturbingly tangible sense of reality. Just as the “Princess Who Loves Insects,” who smiled with unblackened teeth over eight centuries ago, mirrors our current reality, so too could the universe of Nausicaä represent an yet unseen future. To persevere in such a world, I believe the enduring spirit embodied by Nausicaä—the resilience to withstand solitude, the pursuit of the “essence of things,” as articulated by “The Princess Who Loves Insects,” and deep introspection—will be an influential force to reckon with.
About Hikari Otsuka: Born in Kanagawa Prefecture in 1961, she specialized in Japanese history at Waseda University’s School of Letters, Arts, and Sciences I. Her notable works include a comprehensive six-volume translation of “The Tale of Genji,” “Ugly Theory,” “Experiencing The Tale of Genji Through the Body,” and “Kojiki: A Story of Life and Courage Springing from the Gods,” among others.