The Tale of Genji is a novel that was written by a woman named Murasaki Shikibu in the mid-Heian period around 1000 AD. This is Japan's oldest long novel and has 54 chapters although some manuscripts have different numbers of chapters. Murasaki Shikibu wrote this magnificent narrative as many as 300 years earlier than Dante wrote, 600 years earlier than Shakespeare, and 800 years earlier than Goethe.
The original manuscript of The Tale of Genji does not exist. Through a number of manuscripts, the narrative has been transmitted to the present day.
The manuscript consists of 1 million kana characters, roughly 220,000 clauses. If you type the entire narrative on A4 paper, the resultant manuscript is approximately 700 pages. The story includes more than 500 characters and follows the lives of three generations of Genji’s family over a period of 70 years. The classical Japanese writing, which was the style of the time, is an uta-monogatari (poem-tale) with almost 800 waka (Japanese poems). The Tale of Genji is considered typical of dynastic literature.
Because Heian customs, historical background, and thinking are significantly different from contemporary ideas and behaviors, most of the story is difficult to comprehend, and understanding the original text is almost impossible for modern readers without reading the commentaries. Fortunately, contemporary readers have a myriad of guidebooks and studies to aid them, which means that even people who are accustomed only to colloquial Japanese can enjoy the original text if some effort is made.
Every single aspect in this work boasts sufficient quality to be called a masterpiece representing classical Japanese literature: Lady Murasaki’s dexterity in story-telling, her detailed description of character psychology, her ability to gain insight into her time, and her beautifully crafted sentences expressed through acute sensitivity and aesthetics.
Unlike other novels written in the mid-Heian period, Lady Murasaki’s writing style was consistently based on realistic representation, which allows us to feel as if the beautifully depicted scenery, the description of emotional uplift and the magnificent theme are very close to us. This representation is one of the reasons The Tale of Genji continues to capture the modern mind and attract us even a thousand years after the story was written.
The Tale of Genji is a masterpiece of Japanese classical literature.
No other Japanese classical work has been so thoroughly studied by so many scholars, intellectuals, and readers during a period of more than a thousand years. Yet how to read and interpret the text has changed considerably from century to century. This shift in reading and interpretation shows that our thinking is appreciably shaped and influenced by the timeframe in which we live.
We can become familiar with the passage of time including the ideas, customs, and political situation through exploring how The Tale of Genji has been read in the past. Understanding previous interpretations through our contemporary lenses is fascinating.
Even though there was a time in the past when The Tale of Genji was banned, the novel has survived and continues to receive attention and a number of derivative works remain. The Tale of Genji continues to greatly influence genres of culture, such as painting, music, Noh plays, film and drama, performing arts, manga and anime, literature, incense burning and flower arrangement.