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Art and the World's First Novel

Art and the World's First Novel

By Linda Hedrick


What is generally acknowledged as the world's first novel was written by a Japanese woman a thousand years ago.  The Tale of Genji, by Murakasi Shikibu (known as Lady Murakasi in the West), is regarded to be an accurate description of life in the imperial court in the Heian era (794 - 1185 CE).  The daughter of a scholar and an officer of the court, she was given a male's education.  Being a lady-in-waiting herself, she was privy to life at court.

There are three works that are attributed to her - The Murakasi Shikibu Diary, The Murasaki Shikibu Collection (128 of her poems), and The Tale of Genji. Genji was written in 54 installments, chapter by chapter, and distributed to the women of the court.  Since it was deemed inappropriate to use real names in the Heian court, none of the characters have names but are referred to by their roles, functions, relationships to others, or by an honorific.  There is one central character and a large number of major and minor characters.

The novel contains no central plot, but the evolving story of the characters in time has amazing consistency.  As it was erudite and conventional to write and send poems, especially after a lovers' tryst, the novel contains some.  The original manuscript no longer exists, but there is an extraordinary piece that is a blend of literature and art - theGenji Monogatari Emaki - believed to have been created between 1120 and 1130 CE.

Monogatari is a literary form of Japanese literature that is comparable to an epic. Closely related to oral tradition, it is usually about a fictional story, such as The Tale of Genji.  While the form peaked during the 10th and 11th centuries, the word is often used for modern tales.  The Lord of the Rings is known in Japan as The Yubiwa Monogatari.

Art and the World's First Novel

The Genji Monogatari Emaki  (an emaki is a scroll) is both the oldest surviving scroll depicting The Tale of Genji, and the oldest surviving non-Buddhist scroll in Japan.  Commissioned by rulers and members of the aristocracy, they were created by the best artists of their time, and were never intended for public view.  There are other versions of the Genji Monogatari Emaki, but the one pictured here is the most famous, and the term without other explanation refers to this version.

The original scroll consisted of ten to twenty rolls, with over 100 paintings and 300 sheets of calligraphy, making it approximately 450 feet long.  What survives are only 19 paintings, 65 sheets of calligraphy, and 9 pages of fragments, which is roughly 15 percent of the original scroll.  There are two painting conventions from this era that were used in the Genji Monogatari Emaki.  The first technique is funkinuki yatai, which means "blown away roof".  It is a compositional technique used to depict an architectural interior.  A building is rendered without a roof so the gazer has a bird's eye view of the interior.

The second technique is hikime kagibana, literally "slit eyes, hooked nose".  This was used to illustrate people.  Faces done in this style were always drawn at an angle, eyes as straight lines, noses as hooked lines, and small mouths like circles. The faces in the Genji Monogatari Emaki do have some variations; later paintings done in this style were less expressive.

The calligraphers of the Genji Monogatari Emaki did not use just one style of calligraphy.  The different styles were picked for aesthetic purposes rather than for facile reading of the text.  Because of this it is hard for even experts to decipher.  It is assumed that one reason this was done was so the focus would be on the paintings, and not the reading of the script.

Art and the World's First Novel

Japan has a National Treasure program whereby the most precious cultural properties are designated as such.  The Genji Monogatari Emaki is certainly one of these treasures.  These scrolls are so fragile that they are only shown in public on rare occasions, but reproductions and ephemera associated with them are readily available.  The Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya has some of the scrolls, as does the Gotoh Museum in Tokyo.  An oversized photo-reproduction, translated into English, was published in a limited edition in 1971 by Kodansha International.  It is available from rare booksellers for around $400 - $450.

The Tale of Genji has become a timeless classic, its popularity increasing with passing time.  It has been a key component of the Japanese education curricula for a millenium.  Although it was not the only literature written during the Heian era, nor was Murasaki Shikibu the only writer, both were captivating enough to live on in the hearts and minds of people throughout the centuries.  The Genji Monogatari Emaki is a beautiful collaboration of literature and art.


Posted on Cerebral Boinkfest, presented here by permission of the author. Images courtesy of the Tokugawa Art Museum and the Gotoh Museum.

Published since 24 Feb 2012

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