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 Empress, Genji’s stepmother. Just a few years his senior, they were close until Genji turns 12, and lost the privilege of hanging out behind the curtains. A childhood crush grows into unrequited love, and even as he begins to make conquests, he isn’t satisfied. Will Genji overcome significant obstacles and inaugurate the inseki tag? Significant time in both the movie and series is spent developing Genji’s infatuation and, in showing the results, depict what the book but suggests.
Genji’s amorous questing secures a grail when he discovers a small girl whose unsullied charms completely enthrall him: Murasaki. Around 10 and childish, she is related to Fujitsubo and shares some of her features. Genji determines to make her his own, and raise her into the ideal lady. Though not seeking sex right then, this is definitely Heian lolicon, and those near Murasaki are a bit incredulous at his interest. Genji ends up adopting her, without permission, but Murasaki has grown fond of Genji, and has only the complaint of many women, that he spends too much time away. Murasaki’s beauty is shown ably in the Genji Monogatari movie, devoting several precious minutes to her relationship with Genji; still, I don’t think that just how epochal Genji’s discovery of Murasaki was is communicated. In Genji Monogatari Sennenki, it just seems like, one week, all the sudden she is there. Since neither story reaches when she turns Genji’s lover, you will need read the book for that.
Perhaps Genji’s next most interesting shown lover is the Rokujo Lady, an older woman accomplished as a poet and calligrapher. Genji Monogatari Sennenki has fine scenes of them growing closer, at first under pretext of study. During a Buddhist ceremony everyone wants ringside seats to, she becomes party to maybe the most consequential and tragic parking dispute in literary history, and now anime. With another woman, whose bedding leads to Genji’s disgrace, the source has Genji rape her the first time, telling her calling out is futile, as he is allowed to do whatever he wants (that turns out to be wrong!) The movie faithfully adapts this, but the series completely changes it, making the female the more forward in the romance; in either case, she ends up a willing partner who meets Genji repeatedly, showing how feeble is resistance to Genji’s charms. Meanwhile, Genji is married all this time! His wife, Aoi, neglected in her place back home, is understandably cold to Genji on the rare days they meet. Will they ever grow closer? For that matter, will Genji ever have sex with his wife?
Stylistically, Genji Monogatari is more of a stand-out production, whose more grave tone shows the makers took their commission seriously. Many outtakes are downright gorgeous, but the movie comes across as moody and emo, with Genji looking the part. Maybe a Heian gentleman would have been made up so, but the anime still has to communicate Genji as the hunk that he was. It is true that Genji, who lived the life many guys pine for, really was emotive, often fretting about the burden of karma he was laying up, wishing to renounce the world and live as a monk, or even take his own life, but that was out of a fervent Buddhist faith common at the time; the movie concocts a bizarre psychological hang-up that leads to an ending that leaves viewers plumb confused. Genji Monogatari Sennenki is more up to the task: Genji comes across as handsome, and confident rather than creepy. A bit more playfulness is allowed in the story, and alongside some beautiful period insert music, the opening and ending themes are rock that would be appropriate in shojo romance—or, rather, would be just as appropriate to a romance drama series set in Reiwa as in Heian.