“Big Bird in Japan” is a captivating television special by the Children’s Television Workshop, which was aired on NHK in the late fall of 1988, and on PBS on January 16, 1989. As a sequel to “Big Bird in China”, this special features Big Bird and Barkley engaging with Japanese culture and language, filmed on location in Kyoto and Tokyo.
The narrative begins with Big Bird and Barkley separated from their guided tour group. They encounter a friendly young woman preparing to leave Japan from Kyoto, the same time and place they intend to depart. She guides them through the landscapes and cultures of Japan, introducing them to a Japanese family and teaching them basic Japanese vocabulary. Her name remains a mystery throughout their journey, and she often disappears when least expected.
A significant moment in the special occurs at an elementary school, where Big Bird and the audience learn the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The story introduces Kaguya-hime, a magical princess who must leave her adoptive family and return to the moon.
This special beautifully blends cultural exploration with moments of tension and adventure. Big Bird and Barkley nearly miss their train, end up in Sanjusangendo Temple, and Barkley runs away frightened by the statues inside, leading to a frantic pursuit by Big Bird.
In a climactic reveal, the friendly young woman who helped them throughout their journey is revealed to be Kaguya-hime. She forgives Big Bird for losing Barkley and helps them find their tour group. As the narrative culminates, Kaguya-hime disappears into a bamboo forest and is surrounded by colorless men, revealing her as the Bamboo Princess from the tale Big Bird learned earlier.
The ending is poignant, with Big Bird reminiscing about his adventures while Kaguya-hime’s procession walks unseen across the moon. As the credits roll, the shining bamboo stump from which Kaguya-hime originated is revealed, wrapping up the television special’s exploration of Japanese culture and folklore with an air of mysticism.