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Transposing Genji: From Prince to Playboy

Written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century, Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) follows life of Hiraku Genji, son of the Japanese emperor. A noblewoman herself, Murasaki captures Heian period court culture in what some consider “the world’s first modern novel.” Composed of 54 chapters, the story was likely intended for the reading pleasure of noble women, but became a canonical, integral work in the history 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. By the Edo period, literacy was rapidly on the rise. Reading became a popular pastime of not only the samurai class, but also the growing merchant class. While the literary audience was flourishing, few readers were hungering for the classic tales. Edo's thriving reader base gravitated to contemporary dramas. As literacy continued to soar in the 19th century, Genji returned a renewed popularity, but this was not Murasaki’s shining prince. Instead, the tale got a modern makeover.

Toyokuni III. Chapter Matsukaze: The Wind in the Pine, Bijin with Koto from the series Tale of Genji. 1852.

Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji (A Rustic Genji by a Fraudulent Murasaki) redefined the classic tale for Edo’s 19th audience. Written by Ryutei Tanehiko, this gokan (meaning “combined volumes”) was released in 38 serial installments between 1829 and 1842. The story loosely mirrors Lady Murasaki's classic tale, but transposes the story into the world of Edo. The hero is no longer Genji, the Imperial prince, but Mitsuuji, a popular playboy. Parallel to the original tale, the story follows the romantic exploits of Mitsuuji, but the correspondence to the original story varies widely. By the 19th century, Genji Monogatari was primarily read by the upper class, while Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji was popular across class distinction. By drawing from 19th century life, Tanehiko made his story relatable and exciting to a wide variety of readers, regardless of whether they had read Murasaki’s classic or not. While Tanehiko wrote notes directing the illustration, Toyokuni III completed the final designs for each volume. The story far surpassed past bestsellers, selling up 15,000 copies, many of which circulated through lending libraries. The tale's sweeping popularity sparked Genji-themed games, playing cards, and naturally, woodblock prints.

Toyokuni III. Chapter Nowaki: The Typhoon, Young Samurai and Autumn Flowers from the series Tale of Genji. 1852.

The incredible success of Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji generated a craze for Genji-e, or “Genji pictures.” From single-sheet prints representing the 54 chapters, to lavish triptychs, to even Genji-themed shunga, the fervor for Genji pictures permeated popular print culture. Toyokuni III heavily influenced the genre, as both the original illustrator and a leading ukiyo-e artist of the time. Some of his single sheet prints recreate his original illustrations in vivid color. Though Toyokuni III designed the majority of the popular works in this genre, many of his 19th-century students participated in the Genji craze as well. By the 20th century, artists began to return to the original classic Genji Monogatari, but Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji played a critical role in the popularization of the Genji-e genre.

The incredible success of Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji generated a craze for Genji-e, or “Genji pictures.” From single-sheet prints representing the 54 chapters, to lavish triptychs, to even Genji-themed shunga, the fervor for Genji pictures permeated popular print culture. Toyokuni III heavily influenced the genre, as both the original illustrator and a leading ukiyo-e artist of the time. Some of his single sheet prints recreate his original illustrations in vivid color. Though Toyokuni III designed the majority of the popular works in this genre, many of his 19th-century students participated in the Genji craze as well. By the 20th century, artists began to return to the original classic Genji Monogatari, but Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji played a critical role in the popularization of the Genji-e genre.

Toyokuni III. Chapter Tamakazura: The Jeweled Chaplet, Bijin with Chrysanthemums from the series Tale of Genji. 1852.