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  • The Latter Days of the Genji
  • Rebekah Clements, Ph.D candidate and Peter Kornicki, deputy warden
Envisioning The Tale of Genji: Media, Gender, and Cultural Production. Edited by Haruo Shirane. Columbia University Press, 2008. 416 pages. Hardcover $84.50/£58.50; softcover $32.50/£22.50.

In spite of what one of the contributors to this volume calls "the precipitous decline in Genji literacy" (p. 54; and she is talking just of the late Heian period!), The Tale of Genji has been indisputably a dominating presence in Japan throughout the thousand or so years since it was written. What is more, as Haruo Shirane reminds us at the outset, "[i]t is also one of the few Japanese texts that, in the modern period, has had a global reach, coming to be recognized as part of world literature" (p. 1). The telling phrase here is "in the modern period," for The Tale of Genji had scarcely been heard of outside Japan before the middle of the nineteenth century, let alone translated, and that applies as much to the rest of East Asia as it does to the world as a whole. It is this abiding presence within Japan, then, that is the focus of this book, which is a collection of essays on the painterly, literary, and theatrical reception of The Tale of Genji from the twelfth-century Genji monogatari emaki to twentieth-century film and manga adaptations.

The essays in this volume form a rich corpus of work on the long and complex afterlives of what have come to be recognized as the key texts in the Japanese literary tradition, and, as Shirane advises in the preface, are best read in conjunction with the pathbreaking earlier volume Inventing the Classics, which Shirane edited with Tomi Suzuki.1 In the case of The Tale of Genji and of the other works discussed in Inventing the Classics, those afterlives are arguably too intricate to be summed up by the term "reception." Lewis Cook, who in his chapter in the volume under review takes up medieval commentaries on Genji, describes "reception history" as a "capacious rubric" (p. 129). This is certainly apt, not least because of the confusion between genres that Cook explores in his chapter and that the broad category "reception history" unhelpfully masks. [End Page 363]

Shirane offers a rationale for the volume by arguing that "[t]he history of the reception of The Tale of Genji is no less than a cultural history of Japan, for the simple reason that the Genji has had a profound impact at various levels of culture in every historical period since its composition" (p. 1). True enough, The Tale of Genji is arguably the most influential work of literature in the Japanese canon, and it has been read by or has inspired generations of readers. But does this make Genji reception in itself a subject worthy of scholarly attention? This question is particularly relevant in the case of Genji commentary, where commentary is followed by commentary upon commentary, and then by modern scholarly research into commentary and into commentary on commentary, and so on in never-ending circles. It is tempting to see in this a kind of ouroboric cycle that seems mainly to provide an endless supply of material for researchers.

As the various contributions to this book amply and powerfully demonstrate, however, Shirane's claim stands up to scrutiny, for Genji has indeed had a huge impact throughout Japanese history in the fields of literature, drama, and the visual arts; this continues right up to the present day, and there is much to be learned from the changing modes of engagement with the text. The twelve chapters that make up the volume mostly take us into new territory, telling us less about Genji itself than about ways of engaging with it and what they reveal about the limitations and intellectual climate of the times through which the tale has passed. Despite their varied subject matter, many of the chapters dovetail with each other, and the volume's roughly chronological structure means that some earlier contributions prepare the ground for those to follow. Masaaki Kobayashi's introduction to wartime censorship of Genji...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1880-1390
Print ISSN
0027-0741
Pages
pp. 363-372
Launched on MUSE
2010-01-16
Open Access
No
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