Anyway so I was listening to some chillhop and vaporwave when the Youtube algorithm alusi decided to reward me with some new stuff I don’t actually hate for once, this amazing track by Eevee:
I mean it’s a fantastic track that deserves its own in-depth review but I am no musicologist so all I can say is… it’s gorgeous and I regularly listen to it on loop for hours at a time.
I was fascinated to read in the comments that the video was taken from the 1987 anime movie, Genji Monogatari. Now, I have still never read the original classic but when I was a teenager, I read ‘The tale of Murasaki’ which sparked my fascination with Heian Japan and the author, Murasaki. I was particularly interested in how a woman would write such a male hero for a predominantly female audience, mostly of the same cultural and literary sophistication as the author. Even if I might argue my feminism wasn’t the same as it is now, to give younger me credit, I would say my own cultural heritage meant it was still a bit more nuanced and so it’s not that I was expecting ‘girl power’ from a medieval Japanese woman. Yet… plenty other medieval (and ancient) women from different cultures (including Heian Japanese) demonstrate intriguing antagonisms with their cultural norms, even if not as much to outright describe as feminist in our sense.
In their light hearted way, some of the comments also discussed some of those aspects of the text, e.g. the fact we have a hero who is actually an abuser, an abductor and groomer, the very things I found so… odd when reading about The tale of Genji and its author for the first time.
So I did some digging because part of me wondered how much – as with Wilson’s interrogation and new translation of the Odyssey, for example – might be down to translation.
Not only did I learn that actually, the first translation was by the libertarian (and later nationalist) Japanese feminist, Yosano Akiko, but I came across this paper, which gave a really cool reading of the text. Kimi and Yoda suggest that far from Genji being the hero of the text – in a literary sense as obviously he is far from heroic in a moral sense – his ‘insensitivity indicates that he had a supporting role, that he functioned as a foil for the elaboration of the stories of the heroines’. The text is unabashed at it’s portrayal of Genji’s amorous vacillations to quote:
‘…the repeated portrayal of Genji’s brazen self-contradiction reflects the author’s design… the author depicts Genji’s womanizing candidly, to the point of making him look ridiculous.’
Considering that Genji’s grooming of Murasaki stemmed from an obsession with finding the ‘perfect woman’ for him, one who was an intellectual equal albeit only to the extent that did not prevent her satisfying his every desire, his role as ‘central’ character is thus not as a wandering, dissatisfied hero around whom the various women revolve, but as a linking thread through the stories of various noble and middle class women, separated from each other by distance, class and depth of religious affiliation, but unknowingly connected as objects of Genji’s desire for control. That these incidents are continuously referred to almost as shadows against a relief of political entanglements – where individuals can only be identified by titles and access to social power* – provides another important framing.
Thus, perhaps not in contrast to the translation but in reception to common readings of the text, what we have is not a tale of a heroic nobleman, but an allegorical essay into the way kyriarchal structures intersect to create and enable patriarchal desires to trap and manipulate whatever is seen as the ‘feminine’.
*and yes, I understand this is a convention of politeness for the time.
A feminist interpretation of “The Tale of Genji”: Genji and Murasaki
The tale of Murasaki: A Novel
Genji Monogatari (1987)