Filming “Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji),” Murasaki Shikibu’s epic 1,000-year-old tale of love and intrigue among Heian Period (794-1185) nobles, would seem to be an impossible task, like putting the Bible on the screen. (The 1966 John Huston film of that title covers only part of the book of Genesis.) “Genji” has hundreds of characters and nothing resembling a plot, while the language, though considered the summit of Japanese literary achievement, is all but impenetrable for modern readers. (Most Japanese read “Genji” in a modern-language translation.)
Films have been made from it, however, including Kozaburo Yoshimura’s 1951 and Kon Ichikawa’s 1966 versions. The latest, “Genji Monogatari: Sennen no Nazo (Tale of Genji — A Thousand Year Enigma),” directed by TV veteran Yasuo Tsuruhashi, weaves the story of the title character — the “shining prince” of a fictional Heian court — into that of his creator, Murasaki (Miki Nakatani), a lady-in-waiting to a high court official.
Tsuruhashi and scriptwriter Izumi Kawasaki manage the resulting back-and-forth between the two stories smoothly enough. At the same time, the framing story, with Murasaki reading her work of genius to an enthralled audience, makes Genji’s tale feel less lived than literary. Also, the language that reads so exquisitely on the page sounds rather flowery and stiff on the screen (especially in the cringe-worthy English subtitles being shown to foreign media).
Still, “Genji” is miles above the usual TV costume drama in its production values, from Osamu Fujiishi’s photography to Tsutomu Imamura’s art direction. In the exterior scenes, especially, Genji’s court looks an earthly paradise, with its airy, exquisitely decorated dwellings inhabited by beings dressed in gloriously colorful (but never gaudy) finery, who seem to float rather than walk.
No wonder they recoil at the slightest injury or imperfection, not to mention the sordid lives of the hoi polloi. (One of the better scenes shows Genji in a sealed bullock cart being trundled past the downtrodden masses outside the palace gates, while his handlers look on in alarm at the “pollution” that might ensue.) It’s all hugely unfair and the Heian nobs no doubt deserved their decline and fall, but it’s nice to visit — and dream — for a couple hours in their world.
The film begins in fine bodice-ripping style, with Murasaki being thrillingly chased and ravished by her own creation, Hikaru Genji (Toma Ikuta).
The scene soon shifts to the real-life Murasaki being ordered by Lord Fujiwara (Noriyuki Higashiyama), the imperious court official she serves, to write a romantic tale for his daughter Shoshi. The aim is to stir Shoshi’s passions so that she will be a more attractive consort for the Emperor — and produce a child that will augment Fujiwara’s power.
Obediently taking brush to rice paper, Murasaki begins writing the story of Genji, the charming, handsome second son of the fictional Emperor Kiritsubo. Starved for love after his mother’s early death, he goes searching for it among the court ladies, most of whom are only too eager to oblige.
He falls hardest, however, for Lady Fujitsubo (Yoko Maki), his stepmother, who is outwardly horrified — but inwardly captivated — by his declaration of love. (She also happens to be a dead ringer for his deceased mother, adding an icky Oedipal aspect to their relationship.)
Genji also tries to warm up his frosty young wife, Aoi no Ue (Mikako Tabe), but with little success. Frustrated on the home front, he pays ardent and successful court to Rokujo no Miyasudokoro (Rena Tanaka), an older woman of taste and learning. She becomes terrified of losing him to a younger rival, while loving him to distraction. Finally, he falls for the mysterious beauty Yugao (Sei Ashina), whom he meets by chance — or fate — but their affair takes an unfortunate supernatural turn.
Meanwhile, the weaver of these romantic tales, Murasaki, is being pursued by Fujiwara, who has come to desire her person as much as her prose. But Murasaki’s only true passion is Genji.
There is much more, including comic interludes and ghostly goings-on, but much is also thankfully left out from the novel, such as Genji’s scouting of a 10-year-old girl he intends to make his ideal wife.
Nakatani perfectly embodies Murasaki in everything from her sly wiles to her iron will, but the character is finally defined more by her literary creations than her real-life actions. Meanwhile, Ikuta’s Genji remains more of a romance novel fantasy figure than a flesh-and-blood man.
As for the fairy world that Murasaki immortalized, I’m glad it existed; but I’m also glad not to be living in it. If Rena Tanaka was the Heian idea of decrepitude, I’d have been a living fossil.