Critical Evaluation

The Tales of Ise belongs to a Heian period (794-1186) genre that is referred to in Japanese as uta monogatari (poem tales). Most of the Japanese poetry of this period was short, usually only five lines adding up to a total of approximately thirty-one syllables. These were often occasional poems for which a headnote might clarify the subject or detail the circumstances of composition. In the poem tale, such as the Tales of Ise, the compiler or compilers created prose settings for the poems or for groups of poems. In some cases these settings were completely unrelated to the actual circumstances of the poems’ composition. Sometimes groups of episodes might be centered on the same character or similar situations, but there was no overall unity to the narrative. Thus Tales of Ise is within its genre in having no narrative that may be summarized with much coherence. The narrator’s presence in much of the book is the source of what unity it possesses.

The poem tale has some similarities to another genre of the period, the imperial anthology of poetry. These were anthologies commissioned by emperors and edited by the leading poets of the day. The longest section of an imperial anthology was the five books devoted to love poetry. This section describes a typical love affair from the first meeting to the inevitably unhappy ending. Thus the editor of the anthology used the selected poetry to craft a portrait of an aesthetic ideal in the courtly life of the Heian period. The Tales of Ise has no such organizing principle. The only link between many of the episodes is the unidentified hero, a “certain person,” the “man of old,” who is gallant, elegant, charming, and above all witty. The Tales of Ise does go much further than the anthology in anchoring its portraits of love in a realistic world populated by realistic people. In this sense the poem tale can be seen as bridging the gap between poetry and the great flourishing of the novel that would soon take place in Japan. This flowering culminated in the greatest achievement of classical Japanese literature, Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933).

The exact origin or authorship of the Tales of Ise is unknown. Considering the lack of organizing principle, it seems...

(The entire section is 964 words.)