Splendid Hand-Scroll Illustrations of The Tale of the Genjii, The First Novel Ever Written (Circa 1120)

Genji Scroll 1

Ah, The Tale of Gen­ji — a ver­i­ta­ble Mount Ever­est for stu­dents of the Japan­ese lan­guage, and a fix­ture on so many read­ing lists drawn up by fans of world lit­er­a­ture in trans­la­tion as well. This for­mi­da­ble sto­ry of an emper­or’s son turned com­mon­er, writ­ten most­ly or entire­ly by Heian-peri­od noble­woman Murasa­ki Shik­ibu (also known as Lady Murasa­ki) in the ear­ly 11th cen­tu­ry, makes a cred­i­ble claim to the sta­tus of the very first nov­el (or, as more timid boost­ers might claim for it, the first psy­cho­log­i­cal nov­el, or the first “clas­sic” nov­el).


It has thus had plen­ty of time to get adapt­ed into oth­er forms: trans­la­tions into mod­ern Japan­ese and oth­er cur­rent­ly under­stand­able lan­guages, anno­tat­ed ver­sions by lat­er gen­er­a­tions of writ­ers, live-action movies, and ani­ma­tion and com­ic books — ani­me and man­ga.

Genji Scroll 2

Many of those Gen­jis appeared in the past hun­dred years. Much clos­er to Murasak­i’s own time is the Gen­ji Mono­gatari Ema­ki, com­mon­ly called the Tale of Gen­ji Scroll, cre­at­ed about a cen­tu­ry after the Gen­ji itself, some­time around 1120 to 1140. Here you see pieces of the scrol­l’s sur­viv­ing sec­tions, thought to con­sti­tute only a small por­tion of the orig­i­nal work meant to depict and explain some of the events of the nov­el. Art his­to­ri­ans haven’t pinned down the iden­ti­ty of the artist, but they do know that the style of these images, cre­at­ed with the female-dom­i­nat­ed tsukuri‑e (or “man­u­fac­tured paint­ing” process), which involves lay­er­ing a draw­ing over pig­ment itself paint­ed over a first draw­ing, strong­ly sug­gests a woman artist.

Genji Scroll 3

The Gen­ji Mono­gatari Ema­ki fits into the longer Japan­ese tra­di­tion of pic­ture scrolls, which first com­bined images and text in a ground­break­ing way in the ninth or tenth cen­tu­ry and, one could argue, con­tin­ue to influ­ence Japan­ese art today.

tale of the genji--cap-39--12--secolo

That goes espe­cial­ly for pop­u­lar Japan­ese art: in Japan, where you can see thou­sands of com­ic book-read­ers of all ages on the trains each and every day, peo­ple take the union of words and images more seri­ous­ly than they do in the West — or at least West­ern com­ic art enthu­si­asts see it that way. So if these evoca­tive images from the Gen­ji Scroll make you want to pick up the nov­el, but you still don’t know if you can han­dle it straight, start with one of the man­ga adap­ta­tions, which, as you can see, have more his­tor­i­cal legit­i­ma­cy than we might have assumed.

Genji Scroll 4

It’s worth not­ing that Oxford has a site where you can down­load a com­plete Eng­lish trans­la­tion of The Tale of the Gen­jiA new trans­la­tion by Den­nis Wash­burn also came out in the last six months.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Poet­ry of the Cher­ry Blos­soms Comes to Life in a One Minute Time Lapse Video

Hand-Col­ored Pho­tographs of 19th Cen­tu­ry Japan

Hand-Col­ored 1860s Pho­tographs Reveal the Last Days of Samu­rai Japan

The (F)Art of War: Bawdy Japan­ese Art Scroll Depicts Wrench­ing Changes in 19th Cen­tu­ry Japan

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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