Ise Monogatari Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Ise Monogatari

(Also known as Zaigo Chujo Nikki [The Narihira Diary] and Zaigo ga Monogatari [The Tale of Narihira]) Tenth-century Japanese collection of “poem tales.”

The Ise Monogatari, or Tales of Ise, is a loose collection of medieval Japanese poems with brief prose introductions. This anonymous work is the oldest in the uta monogatari, or “poem tale,” genre. Although composed mostly of waka, a Japanese poetic form, the prose prefaces to these poems give the work a unique flavor, anticipating later developments in Japanese literature. Most of the poems deal with the amorous exploits of an unnamed lover, who is traditionally identified as Ariwara no Narihira (825-80), one of the six “saints” of Japanese poetry; Tales of Ise is sometimes described as his fictional biography. The exact date of the collection is uncertain, but it likely reached its present form in the mid-tenth century, the height of the Heian period (794-1192). While the majority of the 209 poems are anonymous, it is thought that Narihira authored some of them. Regarded for centuries as a guide to the ways of love, an arbiter of poetic taste, and a popular source of subject matter for Japanese paintings, Tales of Ise is a highly influential work that is considered essential reading for students of Japanese culture.

Textual History

Despite some claims that Narihira is the author of the Tales of Ise, most modern scholars agree that he cannot be regarded as the work's sole creator. Little can be said with any certainty about Narihira as most details of his life seem to have become conflated with legends about his exploits. He was of royal birth, but apparently he and his brothers were advised by their father to renounce their rank and become noblemen. It is believed he had a military career. In addition to being regarded as one of the most important Japanese courtly poets, Narihira is also reputed to have been the greatest lover and most handsome man in Japanese history. Because much of the action of the poems concerns him, alternate titles for the Tales of Ise are Zaigo Monogatari (The Tale of Narihira) and Zaigo Chujo Nikki (The Narihira Diary). Some critics attribute thirty poems in the collection to him but argue that the rest are the work of a number of poets from varying time periods. The collection is thus the result of a centuries-long process, with poems being collected and rearranged before the anthology assumed its final form around 980. The volume is very much a product of the Heian age, the name given to the period when the seat of Japanese government was Heian-kyo (present-day Kyoto). During this time a new type of literature emerged in Japan which had its roots in Chinese culture but also evidenced distinctly Japanese features, including an emphasis on taste and elegance. Thought to be among the contributors to the Tales of Ise, Ono no Komachi also lived in the mid-800s. Komachi is purported to have been a woman of unparalleled beauty in her youth who had an extremely passionate nature. Conceited and cruel, she broke the hearts of many suitors and, according to legend, was punished by living to an old age and dying lonely and destitute. Nothing is known of the other contributors to the collection, and due to the lack of information surrounding the details of its composition, Tales of Ise is generally referred to as an anonymous work. The original version of the collection has been lost, and the most widely known version dates from the thirteenth century.

Plot and Major Characters

The Tales of Ise contains what is essentially a series of unrelated anecdotes and poems exchanged between a number of men and women, as well as between persons of the same sex. Most of the stories begin with the phrase Mukashi otoko arikeri (“Once upon a time, there was a man”). The work thus recounts the life of an unnamed man (he is a courtier, but there is no indication of his family, rank, or office) beginning with his infatuation with two sisters and following him through a number of subsequent amorous attachments until his death. However, there are also stories of other men and women and their love affairs, and the characters in the poem-tales are of varying temperaments and have different responses and attitudes toward love. There is no main female character who appears as regularly as her male counterpart in the Tales of Ise, but two women who figure prominently are the Empress Takaiko and a supposedly unattainable vestal virgin whose affections Narihira succeeds in winning. There are 209 poems comprising the 125 sections of the work, and each section is a clever and elegant meditation on love outside of marriage.

Major Themes

Most of the exchanges in the Ise Monogatari deal with the effects and consequences of love. Thus, the poem-tales treat subjects such as passion, jealousy, doubt, abandonment, and rejection. They also explore the intricacies of romantic feelings and illicit sexual relationships. The women in the tales are highly eroticized, with those from the noble classes often depicted as unattainable. Because the tales involve characters from noble backgrounds, the work is a study in courtly elegance. It has also been regarded as a guide to becoming both an adept lover and an accomplished poet. The poem-tales offer lessons in how to behave in erotic situations and achieve a successful conclusion to one's liaisons, as well as how to adhere to standards of taste, be sincere, and other personal skills. Love in the Tales of Ise is often depicted as a pastime enjoyed by those who have failed in their quest for political power.

Critical Reception

The Tales of Ise is considered one of the seminal works of classical Japanese poetry. Its episodes are depicted in many works of Japanese art and there are numerous references to the tales in Japanese literature from the classical period to the present day. In the West, Ise is less familiar to readers than two other classics of the Heian age—Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji) and Makura-no-soshi (The Pillow-Book). Scholars writing in English on the Tales of Ise often discuss the work against the literary background of the Heian period and compare it with these two more famous works. One of the first, and still most useful, pieces of criticism in English on the Tales of Ise was Helen Craig McCullough's introduction to her 1968 translation of the tales. McCullough did a great deal to bring the stories to the attention of an English-speaking audience by providing historical background to the work, outlining the characteristic features of Japanese court poetry—especially in terms of Chinese influences and indigenous developments—and illuminating specific poems. Another significant work of criticism in English on this Japanese classic is Richard Bowring's 1992 essay presenting a detailed cultural history of the tales. While the number of critics writing on the Tales of Ise in English is small, those who have studied the work admire the tales' elegant fusion of poetry and prose and affirm its importance to the development of early Japanese culture. They also note its key role at a formative stage in Japanese prose fiction and point out that a proper appreciation of classical Japanese literature without knowledge of the Tales of Ise is impossible because of the numerous allusions to this seminal work in other writings.