The Tale of Genji

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Written a thousand years ago in Japan by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji takes place in Japan’s imperial city of Kyoto. It is a time of aristocracy, strict social hierarchy, and imperial wealth and ceremony, and court intrigues and powerful alliances are endemic. Social order and imperial protocol frown upon superficial gallantry, gossips, and scandals, yet these very predilections prevail under the guise of good manners, social etiquette, and propriety, and flourish among lords and ladies of gentility.

Incredibly popular in Japan, and considered one of its enduring classics, The Tale of Genji has only been fully translated into English in the twentieth century. Royall Tyler’s authoritative, comprehensive, and unexpurgated new translation finally gives an English speaker the chance to enjoy Japan’s favorite medieval romance to the fullest. Presented in a beautiful, two-volume slipcase, Tyler’s translation offers an elegant prose which captures the spirit and flair of the original and reads as beautifully as some of the spectacular sights of its narrative, which are also captured in appealing illustrations.

Into this realm of Murasaki Shikibu’s rich imagination, which is drawn in part from her real-life observations but set almost a century earlier than the author’s life, Genji, a son of the emperor and his intimate Kiritsubo, is born. Since she is only the emperor’s intimate, which ranks below the consorts and even lower than his single empress, Kiritsubo’s only livelihood is Genji and the emperor’s affection. The emperor gives up his desire to make Genji heir apparent over his firstborn son because the court would not allow such an unprecedented move. Thus, his favorite son is made a commoner and given the surname Genji (or Minamoto), freeing him to a life of wide-ranging romantic action and experience.

While Genji clearly occupies the central place and is the most colorfully drawn character and hero of the novel, The Tale of Genji does not lack at all in other characters, plots and subplots, episodic occurrences, and confusing relationships and interrelationships among the lords and ladies of the imperial realm. However, it is Genji who binds the often-fragmentary novel together. In essence, he is what gives life to the book, and Tyler’s translation effectively captures the richness of his character without detracting from the many others populating Shikibu’s masterfully spun narrative.

When Genji is twelve years old, he is married to Aoi, a sixteen-year-old daughter of an influential courtier. He is too young for the marriage to affect him much. Though officially married, he still lives in the imperial palace near the emperor and his future empress, Fujitsubo, while his wife lives at her father’s residence. This was not out of the ordinary for the upper classes in medieval Japan. Despite their distant behavior and her indifference toward him, Genji and Aoi eventually have a son, Yugiri, who resembles Genji closely.

During his early years, Genji is often near Fujitsubo. Even though the required curtains, blinds, or screens separate them physically, as was mandatory between a man and a women of respectability, Genji develops a special devotion toward Fujitsubo because she resembles his late mother closely. In a culture which strongly believes in reincarnation and rebirth, this motivation is not as repellent as it may be for a contemporary Western reader. Tyler’s informative footnotes help to fill in cultural gaps, and the illustrations give a nice visual sense of the culture which gave rise to Genji’s adventures.

As Genji matures, his father does not let him be so close to Fujitsubo any longer, with good reason. Yet Genji defies the older man and succeeds in secretly making love to Fujitsubo. The result is a son, the future Emperor Reizei, whom the cuckolded Emperor believes is his own. He even deems it natural that the boy should look just like his other son, Genji.

Despite this momentous transgression, Fujitsubo is still beyond Genji’s reach. He can truly communicate with her only by writing poems and brief letters, which are delivered by messengers. These poems are what helped distinguish The Tale of Genji in its time, since medieval Japanese society considered poetry the highest and most genteel art. All early Japanese literature placed poetry above prose. Thus, it is not unusual that Genji’s messages to all his women are carefully written and crafted with poetic allusions and penned on types of paper selected according to the recipient’s rank and the occasion of the lines.

To make up for his desire to have someone entirely his own, Genji insists on taking a little girl into his care and virtually kidnaps her from her nurse when her mother is dead. Again, he is attracted because the girl is Fujitsubo’s niece and looks just like her aunt, the woman Genji can never possess. In time, the little girl will grow up to be Lady Murasaki, and become his true and greatest love. She will have the sole privilege of daily interaction with Genji. Ironically, the real first name of the...

(The entire section is 2103 words.)