A Japanese Classic Illuminated

by | Apr 17, 2019 | novels | 0 comments

Portrait-Icon of Murasaki Shikibu (Murasaki Shikibu zu)

Tosa Mitsuoki (1617-1691)

Held at Ishiyama-dera Temple, Otsu, Shiga Prefecture

(credit Wikimedia commons)

I am writing today because I want to share my excitement about the stunning show now up at the Met in New York, The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated. You may think that you have seen enough old paintings of gold clouds and chubby pale-faced courtiers of indeterminate sex, but this show is something very special. The Tale of Genji, for those who may not know, is a thousand year-old novel written by a woman known as Murasaki Shikibu that has been as central to Japanese art and culture as the Bible in the West. No joke. It is really that “canonical.” Thanks to my old friends Melissa McCormick and John Carpenter’s brilliant curation, this show offers a spellbinding synthetic account of the interweaving of art with literature, power, beauty, gender and religion over a millennium of Japanese history. I was lucky enough last week to get a tour of the show from Melissa, and my head is still spinning.

What this show is really about, at its core, is just how marvelous it is that a piece of fiction written by one woman could have achieved this hyper-canonical status. It traces how Japanese artists, writers, warlords, and aristocrats have celebrated and come to terms with this miracle of female authorship over the last thousand years. Writing the Tale was such a monumental achievement that for centuries it was believed that Murasaki Shikibu must have been a manifestation of the boddhisatva Kannon; no mere human could have produced a text of this complexity and power, with such a depth of insight into the human condition. In other words, the Genji was not canonical because it was sacred; it became sacred through the force of Murasaki’s writing itself.

There is a delicious paradox here. Writing fiction is a sin in Buddhism because it threatens to cause readers to become attached emotionally to characters who do not exist, making it harder for them to escape the cycle of desire and the suffering it entails. But Murasaki’s Tale is so good at making readers feel the emotions of her characters that it may actually lead them to realize the Buddhist truth that there is no fundamental distinction between reality and fiction: the principle of “non-duality.” Or at least this is what many of its most devoted readers, unable to stop reading it, have told themselves over the centuries.

In her fabulous chapter in the exhibition catalogue “The Buddhist Veneration of Murasaki Shikibu” Melissa traces a pictorial tradition beginning in the late twelfth century that imagined Murasaki as having been inspired to write the Tale on a visit to Ishiyama-dera on the shore of Lake Biwa near Kyoto, a temple where elite women went to pray for reproductive health and safe childbirth. Looking out over the lake and gazing at the moon’s reflection on the water, she achieves a sudden clarity of vision, realizing that while there is only one moon, its light shines on everything, and thereby achieving insight into the Buddhist principle of non-duality. (Reading this, I kept thinking of Eve Sedgwick’s late interest in Buddhist non-dualist thought as described in her essay “Reality and Realization.”) The show includes a series of exquisite paintings by the Tosa and Kanō schools depicting this moment of “clear vision” and representing Murasaki as a Buddhist icon, complete with a Chinese inscription and two Japanese waka poems from Murasaki’s diary that suggest the depth of her realization.

It is at this point, the legend goes, that Murasaki begins to compose the Tale, starting with what is now the twelfth chapter, about the protagonist Prince Genji’s exile to the shores of Suma (near present-day Kobe), where he too stares out at the full moon on the night of the fifteenth of the eighth month, thinking of the loved ones he has left behind in Kyoto. In a later painting, a tryptich by Tosa Mitsunari (1646-1710), we see Murasaki at her writing desk in the middle panel with scenes of Genji in Suma and Akashi (the setting of the following chapter) to her right and left. Now the full moon has risen behind her as she looks down to concentrate on her writing, suggesting that “the moon properly resides in her heart-mind” as the characters emerge from her imagination. As Genji stares at the moon from his panel into hers, Melissa writes, “Time and space seem to collapse, as we envision the author, her characters, and even [the Chinese poet] Bai Juyi, whom Genji cites in the passage, all contemplating the same moon on the same night (140).”

Melissa also shows how this notion of Murasaki as a boddhisatva gradually gives way to a focus on her as a human author. In her reading of a painting in the show by Kiyohara Yukinobu (1643-1682) a female painter in the Kano school, she shows how Muraski appears not as an otherworldy manifestion of Kannon engaged in serene contemplation of Buddhist truths, but actually “in the act of writing, the marks of her brush apparent on the paper (134).” Yukinobu also emphasizes Murasaki’s scholarly training in Chinese (which women were not supposed to have…) by including a painting within her painting: a Sino-Japanese-style landscape painting hanging on the wall behind Murasaki of “a solitary figure punting a boat toward the shore” that is reminiscent of Genji at Suma. By thus calling attention to Murasaki’s writerly identity and to her education in Chinese, the painting “leaves us to wonder if Yukinobu felt a special affinity with the Heian-period female author (134).” Yukinobu’s Murasaki is closer to a human, secular author. And yet a patch of turbulent clouds above her suggests that something supernatural may yet be afoot.

In yet another stunning reading, McCormick finds an image of Murasaki in a pair of folding screens painted by Tosa Mitumochi (1517-1572) depicting the famous “Battle of the Carriages” scene when Genji’s lover Lady Rokujō’s carriage is pushed rudely out of the way by the runners escorting his principal wife Aoi to the Kamo festive where Genji is about to appear. This scene of humiliation is what will cause Rokujo’s jealous spirit to leave her body without her knowing it to murder her rival later in the chapter. The screen was commissioned by the Emperor Ogimachi at a moment in the late sixteenth century, when the power of the court was at a low point and warrior families vied for control. Ogimachi may have commissioned the screen, which represents the Kamo festival normally held to celebrate imperial succession, as a kind of substitute since the festival had to be cancelled for his own coronation. As McCormick writes, he also may have hoped that the effort put into the screen’s production would work “a kind of magic, willing a vision of the emperor’s reign into existence.”

If you look closely at the upper middle of the screen you see a lone female figure seated in an interior space, gazing out not at the scuffle between Rokujō and Aoi’s attendants, but off to the side. This figure, Melissa speculates, may be Murasaki Shikibu who, as the author of all that is happening, is not directly involved in the scene, but “seems to survey the entire episode in her mind’s eye, as would an author or omniscient narrator.” She is an author, and also, perhaps, a proxy for an emperor whose reign is insecure and who wishes for a similarly transcendent perspective.

In her essay in the catalogue on “Genji and Good Fortune” curator Monica Bincsik writes that when the first shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu finally succeed, in 1615 in defeating his last rival and putting an end to the internecine wars that had raged for a decades and destroyed the country, one of the first things he did was to arrange a reading and a lecture on an auspicious chapter of the Tale of Genji. In 1639, when Ieyasu, anxious to ensure succession, married his three-year old daughter to a relative, he commissioned the most elaborate wedding trousseau ever produced in Japan. The theme, of course, was the “First Song of Spring” (Hatsune) chapter of the Tale of Genji which shows Genji at the height of his power making visits to his various women. Seen from the women’s perspective, however, it is not so glorious. Among those Genji visits is the Akashi lady, who has taken up residence in the Winter wing of Genji’s Rokujō palace. Seeing papers scattered about on which she has been practicing her calligraphy, he is reminded how lovely she is and decides to stay the night. This proves very upsetting for another of his lovers, Murasaki, whom he ostensibly loves more than any of his women and who was expecting him to stay with her. At the same time, Murasaki is raising the Akashi Lady’s daughter to prepare her to marry an emperor, her own mother having let her go knowing that her low rank will stand in the way of her success. So in this “auspicious” chapter, one woman is feeling abandoned by Genji, and Genji is spending the night with the mother of the daughter whom she is raising. At the same time, the Akashi Lady herself is grieving the loss of her daughter, whom she has handed over to Murasaki because her own low rank will prevent her from marrying up.

As she gazed on these beautiful lacquer items in her wedding trousseau on which these themes are embossed Ieyasu’s granddaughter Princess Chiyo-hime would have seen, as Bincsik writes, that “the underlying message for the young bride in the shogun’s sphere is one of self-sacrifice for the promotion of the family line.”

But if Murasaki’s tale was constantly co-opted in this way by patriarchs, it was also a vehicle for female homosocial alliance and identification. Over and over in this show, I was astounded by how the Tale of Genji can be so many things at once: a subtle psychological novel, a guide to proper courtly behavior, a Buddhist parable, and a canonical text used by those in power to promote their own vision and their own politics. It is all of these things, while also being–not a myth or a sacred text, or an epic representative of an entire culture—but the product of one woman’s imagination.

It is also sheer pleasure to read (especially in Dennis Washburn’s lucid new translation). Murasaki may not have been a goddess, but the Tale she wrote is miraculous. And I confess to feeling something akin to religious awe walking through the Met galleries and coming into the presence of a small Buddhist statue dating from the tenth century that may have been in the room at Ishiyama-dera as Murasaki gazed out at the moon. We have no manuscripts in her hand, but the show includes an inkstone that has been thought for centuries to have belonged to her. It will give you chills too.

If you plan to be in New York before June, go! And if you don’t it’s worth a trip just to see the show. And be sure to get the catalogue. It’s not cheap, but worth every penny with gorgeous images and more essays that I could mention here, a useful bibliography, and compact summaries of all fifty four chapters of the Tale. Great for teaching, too.

But let me give Murasaki the last word. Here, in Richard Bowring’s translation, is one of the poems that the Tosa School painters took from her diary to inscribe on their paintings of Murasaki as Buddhist icon. She wrote it upon the death of a close female friend, after coming upon a letter she left behind. It shows Murasaki’s awareness of “the transience of things” (mujō) and, perhaps also a more writerly desire, despite this inevitability, to be read far into the future.


Tare ka yo ni                           Who will read it?

Nagaraete mimu                     Who will live forever

Kakitomeshi                            in this world?

Ato wo kiesenu                        A letter left behind

Katami naredomo                   In her undying memory