It is considered the world's first novel, written in the 11th century by a 30 year-old Japanese woman. The Tale of Genji
has been interpreted in hand scrolls, woodcuts, operas, manga and anime. There's even a PlayStation 2 videogame. Broadcaster Teresa Goff
considers why the novel continues to fascinate.
Written a thousand years ago by Murasaki Shikibu, a 30 year-old lady in waiting of the 11th century Japanese Heian Court, The Tale of Genji is considered the world's first novel. It's a story of politics and intrigue, of sexual conquests, frustrated love and jealousy, of the relationship between art and nature, and of the relationship between nature and the spiritual. Every person schooled in Japan can recite the beginning by heart. Scenes from The Tale of Genji have been the subject of paintings for a millennium and passages from the book have been copied and referenced in plays, poems and novels ever since its writing. Vancouver documentary maker Teresa Goff considers why the novel continues to fascinate
The Tale of Genji or Genji Monogatari is told in 54 chapters, spanning 75 years and incorporating over 400 characters. It opens with the birth of Genji, son of an emperor and his favourite concubine. Genji grows to be a man of incomprable beauty, sensitivity and intelligence. The Tale recounts his youth and his rise through the ranks of governance. There are whisperings of politics, discussions of philosophy, but no military feats. The Tale focuses instead on Genji's amorous adventures - including the abduction of a 10 year-old girl, whom he steals and raises to be his ideal wife. Genji's numerous affairs leave him unscathed until he sleeps with the daughter of the leader of an opposing political faction. Genji is then forced into exile. When he eventually returns to the capital, he builds himself a mansion with a different woman in each of its four wings. He is offered the retired emperor's daughter as a wife who then betrays him with another man. When Genji's beloved mistress, whom he has raised from girlhood, dies, our heartbroken hero follows her swiftly to the grave. After his death, the story continues with the lives of Genji's descendants.
There are many different answers to even the simple question of what story the Tale tells, which thread is the most important. And there is a wide range of opinion about themes and meanings - in certain circles it is considered a feminist tract and a denunciation of male promiscuity. Marxist critics have claimed it as a satire on the evils of the upper classes and modern commentators have compared Murasaki Shikibu to Marcel Proust for the way she recounts the minute details of daily life.
Edward Seidensticker's 1976 translation
The Tale of Genji by Royall Tyler, published by Penguin Classic
The Tale of Genji, read in Japanese by Kasumi Kobayashi
The Tale of Murasaki, by Liza Dalby
One Man's Genji Pilgrimmage, a photographic journey into the world of Genji.
Genji Monogatari, the 1987 anime by director, Gisaburo Sugii (in Japanese, English subtitles), on You Tube.