A Closer Look: The Yugao Chapter from The Tale of Genji

The Yugao Chapter from The Tale of Genji (1886), is inspired by a foundational work of Japanese literature. Written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century, Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) follows life of Hiraku Genji, the shining son of the Japanese emperor. A noblewoman herself, Murasaki captures Heian-period (795-1185) court culture in what some consider “the world’s first modern novel.” Composed of 54 chapters, the story was likely initially intended for the reading pleasure of noble women, but soon became a canonical work of Japanese fiction. From pleasures of court life to passionate romantic entanglements, The Tale of Genji featured prominently in Japanese art since the 12th century.

Yoshitoshi, The Yugao Chapter from The Tale of Genji, from the series One Hundred Views of the Moon.1886. Ronin Gallery. Yoshitoshi, The Yugao Chapter from The Tale of Genji, from the series One Hundred Views of the Moon.1886. Ronin Gallery.

In Yoshitoshi's interpretation of the Yugao chapter, he portrays the most mysterious of Genji’s many lovers. The story goes as follows: On a journey to see his ailing former nurse, Genij is stuck by beautiful flowers growing about a dilapidated house. Genji orders his servant to pick the flower, at which moment a beauty emerges from the house. The woman gives the servant a fan on which to carry the flower. Genji notices a elegantly written poem on the fan and becomes entranced with young woman. In the following days, he tries to learn more about her through his servant but, persist as he might, the beauty would not reveal her true identity. Genji called her Yugao (evening face), after the morning glory-like flowers that grew around her dilapidated house.

One night, Yugao agrees to meet Genji in person and accompany him to a rural palace. After they consummate their love, Yugao dies very suddenly, killed by a jealous spirit of Genji's former mistress. The young prince is distraught and falls ill for 20 days following this devastating loss. Genji later learns that the mysterious beauty was in fact the mistress of his brother-in-law. Yugao had fled courtly life to flee the jealously of her lover’s wife.

Yoshitoshi portrays Yugao as a wistful ghost, delicate and pale as the flower of her namesake. Her long hair flows down her back in typical Heian fashion, though it is perhaps messier than that of a court lady. As her form dissolves into the background, Yoshitoshi captures the spirit of Yugao, emphasizing her spectral status through her blue lips and eyes. Her ephemeral stature contrasts the sharp and strong vine of the Yugao flower that wind through Yoshitoshi's composition.  They seem to curl around Yugao as her face catches the pale light of the full moon. The word yugao can also be understood as “evening face” as well as “moonflower.”

Eager to hear more moonlit tales? Be sure to explore the series One Hundred Views of the Moon in its entirety online. 

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