Genji in Graphic Detail: Manga Versions of the Tale of Genji

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Lynne Miyake (Asian Languages and Literatures, Pomona College), in a talk sponsored by the UCLA Center for Japanese Studies, analyzed the manga, or pop cartoon, versions of the famous eleventh-century Japanese novel The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari). The juxtaposition -- and collision -- of the high-brow classical novel (whose author, Murasaki Shikibu, was a lady in the imperial court) and the definitely low-brow comic-book versions, in Professor Miyake's analysis became a way to appreciate not just how deeply this ancient novel has penetrated Japanese culture, but more fundamentally how paradigmatic elements of traditional Japanese culture are perpetuated and, in the process, refashioned.

The World of Manga

“Japan is awash in manga.” With these words (quoted from Frederick Schodt, one of the foremost experts in the field), Professor Miyake began her talk.

In 1995, the peak of manga publication and production, 1.9 billion -- or 15 manga for every man, woman, and child in Japan -- were sold. This figure did not include the dôjinshi (or amateur manga publications), or mawashi-yomi when one manga was passed and read by several people. Since that time the statistics have fallen to 1.5 billion in 2000, the latest figures I have, but this still accounted for one third of unit sales and nearly a quarter of the gross sales of all publications for that year.

Perhaps in recent years, manga reading on trains has been eclipsed by people engaging in text messaging or surfing the net on their cell phones, but Japanese manga have certainly left their mark. Manga is ubiquitous in Japan: it is used for a variety of tasks, ranging from training new bank customers in the whys and wherefores of banking, on the one hand, to instructing employees on how to estimate the cost of sewer construction, on the other.

Manga has, Miyake declared, "left its stamp on almost every aspect of Japanese life."

Manga comprise several types. At the broadest level, Professor Miyake explained, manga can be divided into the informational type, which are perceived to be relatively cultured and of relatively high quality, and the entertainment type. Manga can also be divided into categories by the intended audience. According to this scheme, manga can be classified into five types:

  • shônen manga, or boys or young men's manga, where the intended audience is up to around the age of 18 and where the "focus is on action, sports, and romance, from the point of view of the male protagonist"
  • shôjo manga, or girls of young lady's manga, which "is marketed to females up to about the age of 18. . . . These tend to focus on romance from a young, female protagonist's point of view."
  • seinen manga, or "adult comics -- a vague categorization -- is targeted at men between the ages of 15 and 40."
  • reidisu komikku manga (literally, ladies comics manga), are directed at adult women, and focus on themes of marital discontent, passionate love affairs, and a variety of issues important to Japanese women."
  • "Other" -- a catch-all category that includes "hobby, specialist, sports, erotic, and pornographic" manga.

The World of Genji in the World of Manga

"Generation after generation seem to produce their own adaptations of The Tale of Genji," Professor Miyake observed. "Our generation is no different, except perhaps in the source of media."

With manga such an integral part of Japanese culture, "it was perhaps inevitable that manga versions of literature would make their appearance and that many would retell the story of The Tale of Genji, one of the most beloved texts of the ages."

In looking at the manga adaptations of The Tale of Genji, one is struck by their great number and diversity. Professor Miyake asked,

Why the differences? And why so many? Is it simply the need and desire for each manga artist to retell a classic tale in his/her own words, as is the case with the reworking of the Chûshingura story in film after film in the 50s and 60 or the modern “translations” of Genji itself? More importantly, how does each artist tell his/her tale? What is the focus of each? How different are they from Murasaki Shikibu's own Genji monogatari, first told almost a millennium ago? Can these differences, shifts in focus and story, only be attributed to a transformation in medium, in other words from textual expression to a combination of word and image? The answers to these questions lie in an examination of the likes of shôjo and shônen manga and, what Sharon Kinsella calls, informational or jôhô manga, as well as in an exploration of the hows and whys of manga production. Neither must we forget to look at and appreciate the individual drawing techniques and artistic perspectives, used in each manga, to present its own graphic rendition of Genji/the Genji.

Professor Miyake then proceeded to dissect and discuss five examples of manga versions of the Tale of Genji.

The first, a single volume of 300 pages, is adapted and illustrated by Tsuboi Koh and supervised by the renowned Heian scholar Shimizu Yoshiko. It was published in March 1989, followed seven months later by an English version, translated by Alan Tansman. The Tusobi manga "covers thirty-six of the fifty-four chapters of Genji but attempts to tell the story in its entirety. . . . Tsuboi is able to complete the Genji monogatari story only by omitting chapters and by using innovative techniques to condense and pare down the narrative. In sum, we could say that Tsuboi's manga is less a reworking of . . . the Tale of Genji than a twentieth-century translation/transformation of what the world looked like. Tsuboi attempts to duplicate the ambiance of that world and transpose it into the twentieth-century manga medium."

In Tsuboi's manga, and the others, certain techniques of illustration and rendering are deployed to communicate important information to the viewer, in concept at least not unlike the scroll paintings of Genji's time. For instance, in most manga, characters are distinguished by appearance, naturally, reinforced by differences in clothing and the like. In manga versions of The Tale of Genji, however, all the women have long hair -- the style of the time for aristocratic women -- and everyone wear a gown. Thus, to help identify characters, Tsuboi resorts to subtleties, such as giving different female characters different eyebrows (bushy, thin, flared up at the ends, etc.).

The second example is Hasegawa Hôsei's Genji monogatari, consisting of three volumes in the Manga Nihon no koten series (Chûô Kôronsha, 1996-97), which was published under the auspices of veteran manga artist, Ishinomori Shôtarô, known for his Manga -- Nihon keizai no nyûmon (Japan Inc: An Introduction to Japanese Economics in Manga, 1986) and his epic 48-volume Manga -- Nihon no rekishi (The History of Japan in Manga, 1989).

The third, by the woman artist Yamato Waki, is the thirteen-volume Asaki yume mishi, published in Kodansha's KC Mini Series from 1980 to 2000. It originally appeared in magazine serialization in the 1970s in a girls' magazine from 1979 to 1993. "It targeted 11-year-old girls, although older girls and women read it also."

In a word, the most salient signifier of Yamato Waki's manga is that it is a shoojo manga, and it is this fact that most clearly determines who the story is about, what it is about, and how it is narrated in word and image. First and foremost, as a shoojo manga, Asaki yume mishi is centered on romance. As a representative of mainstream shojo manga, it focuses on a heterosexual object of desire: the ideally handsome perfection of manhood, the shining Genji. . . . The heroines are beauties of equal stature. . . . That Yamato Waki's manga focuses on emotions, feelings, and moods enables the manga to be more interactive. The manga asks the reader to care about the characters.

The fourth, is also a shôjo manga: is NHK Manga de yomu koten Genji monogatari, the debut work of one Toba Shôko. Ms. Toba's manga is a mere 176 pages, and "relates only a short segment of the life of five heroines in part one of the tale without any sense of continuity or how the parts relate to each other."

The fifth and final manga, by Egawa Tatsuya, is in the "other category": it is, according to some views, "high scholarly" (for example, "it includes the classical text alongside his modern translation"). At the same time, other scholars have discussed Egawa's manga as "a willful distortion," or "porn printing." Professor Miyake's view is that "it would be too facile merely to append one conclusion to the different opinions expressed on this issue . . . . But there are many works throughout the ages that have eroticized Genji. Egawa's adaptation is yet another, perhaps a more twentieth/twenty-first century one, and one done in a different medium."

Lynne Miyake (Ph.D., UC Berkeley) works in classical Japanese literature, especially the narrative prose and diary literature traditions of the tenth through twelfth centuries. She examine the different narrative strategies employed by authors, narrators and readers in the creation of the textual experience. She also looks at how gender is configured by/in the various players, for example, in a narrator who is a continuum composite of male and female rather than simply one or the other. Recently my studies have included the intersection between contemporary authors/scholars/ filmmakers and classical Japanese literature -- how the likes of a classical Japanese scholar and former attendant to the Japanese royal family (Iwasa Miyoko in Through the Eyes of a Courtlady) and a British filmmaker (Peter Greenaway in Pillow Book) remake and reenact textual moments from classical Japanese literature.

Among her recent publications are "Interactive Narrators and Performance Readers: Gendered Interfacing in 10th-12th Century Japanese Narratives," Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory (2002), and "Through the Eyes of a Twentith-Century Court Lady: Gender, Class, and the Challenge to the Field of Classical Japanese Literature," U.S.-Japan Women's Journal, English Supplement (2000).

External Links

The full text of The Tale of Genji, in English, is available at a site sponsored by UNESCO.

The full text of The Tale of Genji, in Japanese, in both the original and modernized versions, is available at the eText project at the University of Virgina website.

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Published: Tuesday, April 27, 2004