Murasaki Shikibu Genji Monogatari and Genji Monogatari Sennenki: Genji

Perhaps nothing contrasts Japan with the West so much as their foundational classics of literature. From the heroism and violence, action and adventure in the Iliad and Odyssey, it is hard to be further removed than the passionate, yet placid, high-cultural delights of The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. For all their former militarism, what the Japanese really relish is admiring the cherry blossoms, and then some good romantic romance. The Tale of Genji is often claimed as the world’s first novel, but its really more like the world’s first women’s magazine serial. Despite the incredible formality of Heian Japan, the setting, in many ways the tastes of the female audience has remained the same: the Genji was always prime material for an adaptation into anime. This has been done twice, and very differently: the 1987 movie Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji Monogatari (Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji) and the 2009 11-episode series Genji Monogatari Sennenki: Genji (The Tale of Genji: A Millennium-Old Journal: Genji).

The question immediately comes up, How do you adapt 1,190 pages into 11 episodes, or worse yet, one movie? The answer is, they didn’t try. Both projects cover only about a third of the story. Firstly, this strikes one as needless abbreviation. In an industry that has to churn out filler episodes when the source material runs short, a tale prime for effortless shojo or josei appeal should be mined. Given its cultural significance, a studio short funds could likely garner government funding in return for its public service. Secondly, the title character Genji is nicknamed Hikaru Genji or the “Shining” Genji for his incomparable charms and appeal. Yet these stories both leave Genji at a moment of disgrace, and though he comes roaring back, and in the book has some of his best days ahead, the animes both leave him humbled and diminished. Making a conclusion of an interlude is no way to retell a thousand-year-old story and have it understood today.

So who is the “Shining” Genji? In the earlier half of the Tenth century, he is a son born to the Emperor by a beloved but lower status concubine, who bullying by jealous rivals leads to an early death. Given the animosity toward the child, the Emperor gives him technical commoner status, removing him from the line of succession. But Genji’s precocity, scholarship, and increasing handsomeness have the court talking before he hits 12. Freed of the scrutiny that would’ve followed a royal, the grounds are set for one of the greatest lovers the court has ever known to be unleashed.

That is one staple of both animes: sultry scenes of Genji in the arms of the night’s lover, often hard to identify save when Genji calls her name. Reminded that he keeps more lovers than nights in the month, he reassures her that, in this moment, he is completely captivated. The whole works is not shown, but there is partial nudity. For ladies of rank, who remain behind concealing curtains indoors most of the time, this is a thrill of life, and the maidservants can hardly conceal their eagerness to see but a glimpse of Genji again. Both of these anime are due correctives to the more recent Tale of Princess Kaguya, where modern biases rule, and audiences miss how much fun court life could be for women of quality.

The Shining Prince is no mere rake, however. His passion for women was excited by a first love that is again and again disappointed... Fujitsubo, the new Empre