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Multiple interpretations of a tale told in many forms

by Donald Richie

ENVISIONING “THE TALE OF GENJI”: Media, Gender, and Cultural Production, edited by Haruo Shirane. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008, 400 pp., 11 color plates, 66 b/w illustrations, $32.50 (paper)

“The Tale of Genji,” Murasaki Shikibu’s long monogatari, upwards of a thousand pages in translation, or some three- quarters of a million words, was written in the early 11th century and is often called the world’s first novel.

It has also come to define much of Japanese culture. As the late Edward Seidensticker, one of its most persuasive translators, has written: “The Genji Monogatari has been an enormous influence on later literature and other art forms and on popular lore as well. It is one of the principal sources for the Noh drama. There have been fictional recountings and adaptations in more recent centuries, as well as adaptations for the Kabuki stage, the cinema, and television. Of several renditions into modern Japanese, more than one has become a best seller.”

An international symposium investigating the enormous influence that this work has had upon Japanese culture in general was held at Columbia University in 2005. It included 21 speakers and 10 respondents from the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan. The present publication contains 11 of the papers given at the conference plus a very full opening chapter by the editor: ” ‘The Tale of Genji’ and the Dynamics of Cultural Production.”

“Genji” was early canonized and influenced not only early noh drama but also Japanese poetry in general. In 1193 the leading poet of the day, Fujiwara Shunzei, said that “those poets who compose poetry without reading ‘The Tale of Genji’ are to be regretted.” Its influence on Japanese painting is equally well known, stemming from the famous “Genji Scrolls.”

Haruo Shirane writes that a major premise of this book is that “the ideological and cultural value of a canonical text lies not only in the text itself but in the media and institutions through which it acquires such value.” One of the means is visualization and we follow this dynamic from the first handscrolls right down to the latest “Genji” manga.

There are many other means as well. The “Genji” was put to work almost at once. It has informed poetry handbooks, been subjected to pastiche versions, been reduced to guides and other simplifications.

It has even been put to use by religion. In 1176 a sutra was authorized to save the author from her place in the Buddhist hell. Actually, she deserved to be there because the burden of her monogatari is the love life of her hero, and, as the sutra explains, the work “contains erotic words that encourage human desire and weaken the human heart.” It is for this reason that “Murasaki Shikibu and her readers are unable to leave the cycle of death and rebirth and have fallen into the hell of the forest of swords.”

Politics also had a use for “Genji” criticism to an extent. When the imperial line had to be shown as unbroken (during World War II), any suggestion otherwise was squelched. The “Genji” itself was never banned, but serious interpretations are few.

Most popular interpretations are thus on the simple level of the various Takarazuka revue presentations, the several anime versions, and most of the manga versions. Also, the various film and TV versions ask no embarrassing questions. The most serious of these, however — Ichikawa Kon’s black and white TV series with Itami Juzo as Genji — is not mentioned in these pages. Perhaps this is because it appears to no longer exist. The TV station concerned is said to have no record of it. Perhaps it was dismantled and returned to the chaos from which TV comes.

In his excellent introduction Shirane makes a distinction between the uses for “Genji” found in the literary canon and those discovered in popular culture. Borrowing from Serge Gavronsky’s theory of translation, he draws attention to the literary “pietistic” tradition, and the “cannibalistic” tradition of popular culture.

“The pietistic type presents the translator as secondary to the original text, while the cannibalistic type presents the translator as someone who consumes the original text, transforming it into his or her own possession.” While not true opposites, their ends are indeed opposed. The former attempts to preserve and transmit the original text while the latter produces an adaptation or a digest to try and create something uniquely contemporary.

Translations of the “Genji” into foreign languages all attempt, in various degrees, to preserve it. So do several of the rewrites into modern Japanese. But the majority of these renderings are “free” translations in which the original is embroidered upon by a contemporary “translator.” This is, of course, particularly true of the film, TV, manga and anime versions that sometimes bear little resemblance to the original.

In demonstrating the various uses found for the Lady Murasaki and her chronicle, this interesting book offers the most comprehensive history of the reception of the “Genji” both in Japan and abroad, and thus has become one of the most impressive examples of the many partisan uses found for literature.