week XIII: Part 1
Week XIII: Part 1


Key Work:

  • "The Tale of Genji" (Fig. XII.1)

    READING: La Plante, Asian Art, pp. 220-236.




    TIME LINE: (12th century)

    FURTHER READING: Ienaga, S., Painting in the Yamato-e Style, Tokyo, l973.

    NOTES: What are the principles of the Yamato-e style? Why is the art called that?


    The scene from the Tale of Genji illustrates one of the major themes of the story. Prince Genji is playing out a theme which is closely linked to Buddhist concepts current in Japan in the eleventh, and later centuries--that all acts have consequences . Good works will be rewarded by good fortune, sins will bring calamity and such retribution for past deeds may even be found in one's future lives. Here he is declaring that the child in his arms is his, although the baby is actually the son of another .
    Genji, an imperial prince, was born to the favorite wife of the emperor, a woman too low in rank for him to inherit the throne. He was a handsome, cultured and sensitive man who had many romances. His intrigues and affairs take up two thirds of the novel, leaving the last third to tell of the loves and lives of two young men, Genji's heirs in Kyoto. This scene explores the effect on Genji of committing a great sin against his father. In his youth Genji fell in love with his father's youngest wife, Fujitsubo, a woman whom he was encouraged to see because she looked so much like his birth mother who died when he was an infant. This liaison produced a son, a child who was passed off as the emperor's own son and who eventually succeeded to the throne . Fujitsubo, the beloved consort of the emperor, was so tormented by guilt that she became a nun to expiate her sin. The full consequence of this past deed came to Genji, however, only in middle age. Then his youngest wife had an extramarital affair th at resulted in a son whom Genji had to publicly avow as his own, just as his father had done with Genji's son.
    The ceremony acknowledging this son is depicted in the third illustration from the Kashiwagi chapter of the first known illustrated version of the novel. As the scroll is unrolled (read from right to left), the brown surface of the courtyard--origina lly silver--and a verandah placed at a sharp angle come into view . The roof and interior walls of the building have been removed and replaced by bamboo blinds and curtains of state--white cloth curtains with black ties loosely hanging from them are hang ing from horizontal poles . At the base of the curtain appears the bottom of a twelve-layered robe, the garment of a lady-in-waiting. Above, red and black lacquered plates are heaped with food. The colors of the garments and the careful placement of th e food dishes indicate that a ceremony is in progress. Two-thirds of the way across the scene figures appear, Genji at the top with the baby in his arms, ladies-in-waiting below. In the extreme upper left of the illustration is the child's mother indica ted merely by a mound of fabric.
    The text accompanying this scene describes Genji's thoughts as he goes through the painful ritual. He knows that the attendants realize that he is not the father. His emotional discomfort is suggested by the physical awkwardness of his placement at the top of the sharply slanting floor where the space is so cramped that he cannot even raise his head. Architecture plays an important role in the telling of this episode--it interrupts the leftward motion of the illustration as well as shields the figu res from view--playing out the theme of retribution.
    The Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji) is a long work of prose fiction supposedly written in the early eleventh century by Murasaki Shikibu (978?-1031?) a lady-in-waiting at the court of Emperor Ichijo (r. 986-1011). Often called the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji was an immediate and lasting success, revolutionizing the art of prose fiction in Japan. Nothing like it had been written before and both the content and romantic mood of Genji inspired generations of poets. Well-known themes a nd episodes also appear in no plays from the fourteenth century through the Edo-period (1615-1868) puppet and kabuki theater into modern plays and film. Over the centuries, chapter titles and memorable episodes from the novel became popularized as the s ubjects of parlor games, depictions on folding screens, in illustrated scrolls, books and woodblock prints.
    The Tale of Genji survives in fifty-four chapters, although there may have been more. The story covers about seventy-five years beginning with the birth of the hero, Genji, and concluding after his death. The principal setting for the novel is Kyoto, at that time the capital of Japan, and much of the action occurs in urban mansions and great gardens of the aristocracy and royal family.
    Despite the title of her novel and the centrality of the hero Genji, Murasaki Shisaki takes interest in exploring the lives and character of many noblewomen. Genji's greatest love, Murasaki, is introduced in the novel as a child and the reade r can follow her as she matures and finally dies. Few females enjoy thoroughly happy lives in this novel for the point is made over and over that in a polygamous society delicate distinctions of status often dictate behavior. Murasaki, for instance, is beautiful, talented and witty but is perceived by Genji and her readers alike as the focus of Genji's life. Even so, she in constantly afraid of loosing his affection. She suffers two real humiliations. First, she is unable to provide him with a child and is therefore charged with raising his daughter by another woman. Second, because of her relatively low status and lack of powerful relatives, she is disqualified as his principal wife, an honor given instead to a woman described as a vapid and childish princess.
    Whether male or female, however, another of the main themes of the novel is the pathos in and transient quality of experience. The illustrations describe this with high emotional intensity. The scattered placement of the women in each illust ration and the slightly opened door give ample indication of the potential of the past and future moment in that scene. This picture depicts a group of women and their maids as heads and hands emerging from masses of drapery. Naka no Kimi is having her hair combed after washing. Her half-sister, Ukifune, faces her and looks at a picture scroll while a maid reads from a text. The tension and dismay that Ukifune felt after her attempted seduction only hours before was described in the text and is subtly indicated by the tension between her half-hidden figure and the mundane setting of the scene.
    The creation of the Genji scrolls must have been a monumental project. The novel in English translation is nearly one thousand pages long. Today only twenty pictures from this early illustrated version survive, but it must have originally in cluded one or more illustrations for all fifty-four chapters. Most estimate that all together there were ten scrolls.
    Scholars trying to determine how the scrolls were made, conclude that there were five teams who worked on the project, each team including a nobleman noted for his calligraphy and his cultural sophistication, and a group of painters, including a principal artist, the sumigaki or painter who draws in black ink, and specialists in application of traditional pigments. Once a particular episode was chosen, the sumigaki would plan the composition and sketch it on paper in fine black lines. Then t he pigment specialists applyed layer upon layer of paint within the lines. The sumigaki would return to paint in the details of the faces--tiny red mouths, slit-like eyes, noses of a single hooked line, thin mustaches or short beards. The painting technique used in the Genji pictures, the application of layers of paint over an underdrawing, is called tsukuri-e, meaning constructed or built up. This technique and style of the Genji and other illustrated narrative scrolls dating from this period came to be known as the yamato-e style, or Japanese pictures.
    The Tale of Genji lent itself well to the horizontal illustrated scroll, the emakimono, a uniquely East Asian format. Both Chinese and Japanese languages were traditionally written in vertical lines from right to left, so that the horizontal format of the emakimono, laid out and unrolled from right to left, provided a familiar way to relate text and image. The juxtaposition of textual passages of varying lengths alternating with pictoral images was a potent format in East Asia for many centu ries and was translated into the medium of film with ease, for instance. The preference for highly formalized compositions and stylized depictions of figures carries over with little variation into single frames of twentieth century films directed by Ozu (see Week 14) and Kurasawa, for example.

    From: Linduff, K.M., 3Japanese Narrative Scrolls,2 in Art Past/Art Present, by D. Wilkins, B. Schultz, and K. Linduff, New York: Abrams, 2000, 4th ed.