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THE TALE OF GENJI is noteworthy for several reasons: This 11th-century work of Japanese literature has been called the world’s first novel. It was more than just a tale; its story had psychological aspects, sort of the proto-Haruki Murakami. What’s more, this first of literary masterpieces was written by a woman. And its illustrated interpretations reach from 12th century scrolls to today’s manga graphic novels.
Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji, was an 11th-century poet and lady-in-waiting at the Imperial Court during Japan’s Heian Period, 794 – 1185. This era in Japan’s history is considered a high point of its poetry and literature.
The Tale of Genji tells the life of Hikaru Genji, “Shining Genji,” the son of an ancient Japanese emperor. A saga with more than 400 characters, the story is renowned for describing the customs of Heian aristocracy.
Briefly, Genji is an ideal of his times, a master of the arts, good looking and a great lover. It is likely Lady Murasaki composed The Tale of Genji in serialized form presented to ladies of the court, sort of a daily soap opera.
The original tale was illustrated on hand scrolls, ink and color on paper, interspersed by Lady Mukasaki’s text, the illustrations often done in bird’s-eye view.
In the scene above, one maid reads to entertain a noble woman while another combs the woman’s hair. Noble figures are stylized, with their emotions suggested symbolically through colors and composition. For example, art experts note that strong diagonal elements create emotional intensity in a scene.
In the 17th-century screen above, clouds of gold permit glimpses of different scenes from The Tale of Genji. By this time, artists began to illustrate the emotions and personalities of commoners. However, noble personages were still shown as aloof, their emotions depicted symbolically.
Kyoto’s The Tale of the Genji Museum opened in 1998 and reflects the continuing popularity of “the world’s oldest love story.” There have been more than a half-dozen English translations, the first in 1882, another as recently as 2015. The Tyler Genji, 2001, is annotated and likely closest in spirit to Lady Murasaki’s tale.
Indeed, for those reluctant to concentrate through 1135 pages, there’s a manga version, also in English. Whichever is chosen, Rij & Meg offer entertaining views in “5 Compelling Reasons Why You Should (Sacrifice Several Weeks of Your Life and) Read The Tale of Genji.”
I haven’t decided which version as yet, though I’m leaning toward Tyler. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016