KYOTO, Japan (Reuters) - A serial seducer who enchants aristocratic women with poems on scented paper and gifts of luxurious kimono, Genji turns 1000 this year, his appeal to readers undiminished.
The Casanova hero of one of Japan’s earliest novels, which was recognized as a masterpiece not long after it was written by an obscure lady of the 11th century Imperial court, Genji has inspired everything from scroll paintings to films, cartoons and even a 1980s roller-skating pop group.
Schoolchildren still study parts of the work and three major English translations have brought international acclaim for the author known as Murasaki Shikibu, her real name is unknown.
“If you boiled Japan’s cultural heritage down to one book, it would have to be ‘The Tale of Genji’,” said Jakucho Setouchi, an 85-year-old writer and Buddhist nun who devoted a decade of her life to a modern Japanese translation of the work, which has sold close to three million copies.
“The book may appear in different forms, but its genius remains,” she said in a lecture in February in Kyoto, one of dozens of events planned to mark the work’s anniversary.
Japanese men dream of being like the prince whose looks, intelligence, exquisite taste and talent for everything from music and dance to poetry have led some literary commentators to dub him the “perfect” hero.
Born the son of an Emperor and a concubine, the boy known as “Shining Genji” for his beauty, is barred from the throne because of his mother’s lowly status, but by crafty plotting later becomes one of the most powerful men in the land.
Female readers tend to sympathize with his conquests, whose fate offers a vivid picture of the status of women in the Heian period, which ran from 794 to 1185.
Young noblewomen were held virtual prisoner in their quarters, and constantly guarded by servants to avoid scandal.
That said, a mixture of bravado and bribery allows Genji illicit access to many bedrooms under cover of darkness, where on one occasion he bumps into a rival and on another finds himself in bed with the wrong woman, his intended target having slipped quietly away.
Most of his lovers are left weeping elegantly into their silken sleeves at daybreak as he returns to his political machinations. As they age, or their patience with his philandering wears out, many of them become Buddhist nuns.
“The position of women was extremely unhappy,” said Setouchi, who says she is grateful to have been born in freer times.
“They were just used to make political marriages, they couldn’t choose for themselves. A man could have as many women as he wanted, so women were constantly frustrated.”
The author, Murasaki, is thought to have been born in 973, but little else is known about her, including the date of her death.
Her father was a minor court official and renowned scholar, who provided his daughter with an education in Chinese — a privilege at the time usually reserved for men in the heavily Chinese-influenced Japanese court.
Royall Tyler, an Australian-based academic and the most recent translator of the book into English says Genji’s fascination goes far beyond his complicated love life, even though Heian women like the author were allowed little knowledge of political life.
“What’s astounding is that despite being restricted in this way she had such a strong conception of the total world in which her hero moved,” he said of the author. “I think she was an absolutely astonishing genius.”
Though love and sex are the constant themes of the book, it is far from raunchy, hinting in only the vaguest terms at what happens behind the paper screens.
“Some silly people say they don’t want their children to read it because of the content, but there’s no actual sex in Genji,” said Setouchi. “Even primary school students can read it.”
Whatever the attraction, those who have attempted it agree “Genji,” which comes to more than two thousand pages in one English version, is hell to translate.
“Stamina,” said Setouchi when asked what was the biggest challenge facing a “Genji” translator.
“I was 70 years old when I took this on. The publishers even asked me if I would live long enough to finish it! It was a gamble.”
Quite apart from the archaic language, the author follows the Heian custom of never referring to anyone by name, so most of the hundreds of characters are called by their titles or those of relatives, which may change as time passes.
“I wanted to make it easy to understand. I wanted as many people as possible to read it,” said Setouchi of her version. “I don’t know how many times I’ve read it, but each time there’s always a new discovery.”
Editing by Megan Goldin