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A picture-perfect millennium tribute

by Sara Harris

THE TALE OF GENJI: Scenes From the World’s First Novel, by Murasaki Shikibu. Illustrated by Masayuki Miyata, translated by H. Mack Horton. Kodansha International, 2001, 240 pp., 3500 yen (paper)

“The Tale of Genji,” renowned as the world’s first great novel, is now nearly 1,000 years old. The intervening centuries have not only elevated and reinforced its status as a literary paragon, they have also seen its characters and themes depicted in a multitude of pictorial arts.

Early on, courtiers enjoyed elaborately illustrated versions of the story recorded on scrolls. In fact, whether in these first illustrated scrolls or the innumerable paintings, prints, textiles and other renditions of “The Tale of Genji” that followed, the history of this novel is inseparable from the representative art it has inspired. This new version — with single-page summaries in both Japanese and English of the original 54 chapters, accompanied by the richly detailed, colorful paper cut-out art of the late Masayuki Miyata — is, therefore, a fitting commemoration of its first millennium.

This book is the fourth in a bilingual series featuring classic texts paired with Miyata’s cut-outs. The others are Basho’s haiku diary, “The Narrow Road to Oku,” a collection of Manyoshu poems and “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” Japan’s oldest folktale. Japanese literature expert Donald Keene, who translated “The Narrow Road” and “Bamboo Cutter,” maintains his association with the project, this time contributing a brief essay.

Overall it is a rich and satisfying presentation. To call the art “gorgeous” does not begin to do it justice. The colors are rich, the rendering clearly painstaking, and Miyata’s sensitivity to detail continually inspiring. One could spend an afternoon just admiring the prints; the only disappointment is that most are run over facing pages and therefore split by the book’s center crease. This could have been avoided by publishing the volume in a larger format.

The chapter summaries, by Ayako Watanabe and Michiko Hiraoka, and their translations are clean, concise, accurate representations of the original, which totals more than 1,000 pages in English translation. Those who have read a complete translation may find the color of the original lacking in this volume — most strikingly, there is no dialogue.

Conversely, these uncluttered scenes, by saving the reader the work of remembering scores of unfamiliar names, plot lines and details, often magnify the human drama as it unfolds over the course of the novel. The women who wrote these crisp summaries deserve more than the half-hidden credit they are given.

Given the high quality of this book in the main, the lack of editorial coordination in the two introductory essays, by Keene and Jakucho Setouchi, an author and nun known for her 1998 modern Japanese translation of “The Tale of Genji,” is all the more embarrassing. That the two authors say nearly the same thing is bad enough, but they also manage to contradict each other as well.

Keene suggests that the aesthetic preferences of Japanese from Murasaki Shikibu’s day until the 1600s prevented them from using available technologies to publish the novel on a larger scale. Setouchi claims the technology simply wasn’t there. Inconsistent references to works of art and literature further obscure the authors’ intended points.

Genji’s trials and amorous exploits, the intricacies of Heian court life and the legacy of the first literary charismatic as depicted in “The Tale of Genji” have proved to be fascinating themes for generations of readers around the world. Presented here, in scroll-like format, with the illustrations of a clear Murasaki fan, the scenes offered in this volume will please the Genji-phile and the neophyte alike.