To impregnate the concubine of the father, to be banned from the court, a lot of beautiful women and larded with poetry. That sounded a thousand years ago as an excellent ingredient for a captivating material, and a thousand years later it still is.
I am talking about The Tale of Genji, the first novel ever about a fictitious prince, which was invented at the Japanese imperial court around the year 1000 by the lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu (ca. 978-1014).
The plot accompanies the life of the exceptionally beautiful Prince Genji, who shines with his love affairs. Anyone expecting juicy erotic details now has to be put off by adaptations from the 20th century, because for 900 years, the 54-volume novel, which was particularly popular with court ladies, was characterized by poetry, etiquette and a look into the highest court circles and manners.
Very soon the work was to take on an almost quasi-religious significance. For centuries, scholars and experts tried to extract deeper meaning from the poems and the moral ideals that the author repeatedly introduced. But it was not only in the interpretation of the text, but also in the design of the writing and the illustrations that the whole of Japanese art unfolded.
Calligraphy was and still is not only regarded as a high art form in Japan, it is also supposed to be a sign of the calligrapher’s character. In Japan, criticizing the written form means nothing more than denouncing the character of the writer. Women were officially banned from the highest ordinations of calligraphy, but this did not prevent them from learning it anyway. Even a continuous text of Japanese characters – like the one shown above – added its own meaning to the text and illustrations.
Over the centuries, the text had only been really accessible to a small circle of people, since before the printing of the book, the production of a copy, which together with the often elaborate illustrations could have comprised more than a thousand pages, was extremely time-consuming and took years. Even individual pages of the novel were treated like a treasure, and the owners managed them accordingly restrictively.
The Battle of the Carriages shown below is one such example, where a key scene from the novel is elaborately depicted, including gold leaf. Genji’s former lover and lady-in-waiting Rokujô is waiting incognito in her hidden carriage at a festival for Genji to pass the crowd. At the same time, however, Genji’s wife Aoi arrives, whose entourage clears a better place for her, moving Rokujô’s carriage in a scuffle and exposing her. When Genji then stops in front of Aoi’s carriage to greet her, the public embarrassment for Rokujô is absolute.
Many of these illustrations were also applied to screens, fans, interior decorations and objects. At weddings between the highest families in the shogunate, many had Genji motifs in the wedding gifts. Genji motifs were also extremely popular on items of clothing and shells used for memory games.
The first printed version did not appear until the 17th century, when the text became known to a wider readership. The original text already had to be supplemented with commentaries in the 12th century, as contemporary readers were no longer familiar with many of the references. And in 1911, the first modern translation of the novel into contemporary Japanese appeared without annotations.
Over time, the illustrations were also adapted to the style of the era, until she herself appeared in 1980 in an artistically unique manga version. Parodies of the novel, some of them with very suggestive illustrations, have also been published over the centuries, which initially circulated only in secret.
An extensively illustrated and explained illustrated book on The Tale of Genji is available for over $65 from the publisher of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a retrospective was held in 2019.