The Tale of Genji

By Kunisada Utagawa
By Kunisada Utagawa - Genji Monogatari
Genji Monogatari
The Tale of Genji - Chapter 37
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The Tale of Genji (Japanese: Genji Monogatari) is considered an important and possibly first psychological novel in early Japanese and even all of literature. The story of the prince Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu, the court lady of the Empress Jotomon in the beginning of the 11th century.

First Publication: September 2007
Latest Update: June 2013

Lady Murasaki Shikibu

Knowledge about the author of the novel, Murasaki Shikibu, is sparse at best. It was also not possible in Japan at that time for a woman to play an important role in literature. But because she could participate in her brother's lessons (which were taught by their father), Shikibu received an exceptional education in the Chinese language, script and literature. She also belonged to the noble Fujiwara family, which had been traditionally active in literature for many generations.

There is disagreement among experts regarding the name of the author as well the dates of events from her life. She was supposed to have lived between 973 and 1016. In any case, Shikibu was born in Heian-Kyo, today Kyoto and one of two capitals of imperial Japan.

When her father became the administrator of the Echizen Province in 996, she received the chance to travel throughout the region, an extraordinary opportunity for a young woman at that time. After her return, Shikibu married Fujiwara Nobutaka in 998, a 20 years older cousin of hers, and gave birth to a daughter in 999.

In Imperial Service

Lady Murasaki - Snow-Flower-Moon
Lady Murasaki - Snow-Flower-Moon - By Chikanobu Toyohara 1838-1912
By Chikanobu Toyohara 1838-1912
Tale of Genji
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After the death of her husband in 1001, Murasaki Shikibu began working on the Tale of Genji Monogatari. It took many years to write and develop the work, especially since she had very little free time while in service to the Empress Jotomon'in (also known as Fujiwara no Shoshi).

Thanks to her extraordinary intelligence and education, Shikibu became teacher to the Empress and received her closest trust and honor. She recorded her experiences in the court in her diary, which is incorporated into her Tale of Genji novel, which she probably worked on until her death.

The Tale of Genji

The novel has 54 chapters and tells the story of the Prince Genji, a favorite but not the eldest son of an aging Tenno. He preoccupied himself with beautiful art and used his high position to satisfy his lust for women.

When Tenno abdicated, however, the son Genji lost a concubine and his privileges in an argument with the new Emperor and his mother and he go voluntarily into exile. He later returns to the court but without his beloved, with whom he in the meantime had a child.

Back in his high position, Genji continues to pursue his excessive lusts. Murasaki, his young niece of one of his previous court ladies becomes his new lover - but nonetheless one of many. When she dies, Genji appears to lose the will to live.

The last chapters take place after the death of Genji and tell the story of two princes who are descendents of Genji. But the story is not finished. Experts are still uncertain today as to why the story ends so abruptly.

Language and Narrative Style

The Tale of Genji
The Tale of Genji - By Shizuo Nishizawa 1912-1997
By Shizuo Nishizawa 1912-1997
Princess Wakamurasaki
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It is not easy for the average Japanese today to read the Tale of Genji because of the complex grammar and forms of address that appear in the work. Back then, it was rude to call people by name and unbecoming to name specific things.

Because the novel additionally is full of hints, symbols and metaphors, modern readers today require the aid of extensive scholarly notes to read and advance the story. Furthermore, characters often spoke in the old tradition in verse often quoting famous lines of poetry but not finishing them because the reader was expected to know the last lines. Today, versions of the tale of Genji are printed in modern Japanese and the characters have names.

Genji Monogatari in Other Media

The medieval novel with its ornate style has prompted several adaptations to date. Kozaburo Yoshimura adapted it into a film in 1951 and Kon Ichikawa remade it in 1966. The story also appeared as Manga by Yamato Waki in 1980 under the title Asakiyumemishi. In 2005, a video game version of Genji became available for the Playstation 2.

The Tale of Genji and Woodblock Prints

Cards of Tale of Genji
Cards of Tale of Genji - By Kunisada II Utagawa
By Kunisada II Utagawa
Wakana no Jou
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The scenes from the Tale of Genji inspire above all visual representation in art, largely in illustrations of scenes from the story. The traditional role of woodblock prints played an important role that is closely intertwined with letter printing.

How far back the Tale of Genji Illustrations reach back is unclear. Certain works by Tosa Mitsuoki (1617-1691) however are already well known. And later followed Kunisada Utagawa (1786-1864) and Kunsiada II Utagawa (1823-1880) as well as Gekko Ogata (1859-1920) with extensive picture series. More recently Masao Ebina preoccupied himself in the middle of the 20th century with scenes from the Tale of Genji and reintroduced the medieval work to the modern.

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Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura

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