SCENERY IN The Tale of Genji


Richard W. Amero


In a book as large as The Tale of Genji some scenes are more impressive than others. The readers' choice of such scenes depends on the significance they have for him. Many readers (and critics) have, however, acclaimed certain scenes above the rest.

The whole book was so important to upper class readers in Japan that they named their combinations of perfumes after all fifty-two chapters.(1)

A famous Noh play by Zeami is based upon the scene in which Rokujo possesses Aoi, though here Rokujo is pacified by a Buddhist monk. Equally celebrated is the lyric drama Evening Glory in which Yugao appears as a flower spirit whose unhappy soul is soothed by the Buddhist Festival of Flowers.(2)

Of the many impressive scenes, those in the first book, such as Genji's meeting with Yugao, the clash of the coaches, and Genji witnessing the storm at Suma are primarily pictorial. After their coaches clash, the servants of Aoi, Genji's wife, force Lady Rokujo, Genji's mistress, to move her coach from a vantage point overlooking a parade in which Genji is a participant. The flying colors on the coaches, the servants' excitement, Rokujo's fury, and Aoi's confusion heighten the tension. (Part 1, Ch. 9, "Aoi," pp. 157-8; Ch. 9 by long count.v)(3) Genji's stay at Suma provides a scene of terror. After speaking to fishermen, Genji watches doll-like figures floating out to sea as part of a Shinto ceremony:

'How like these puppets am I too cast out to dwell amid the unportioned fallows of the mighty sea!'

These verses he recited standing out in the open with nothing but the wind and sky around him, and the magician, pausing to watch him, thought he had never in his life encountered a creature of such beauty. Till now there had not been the least ripple on the face of the sea. Genji, wondering what in the end would become of him, began to review the whole course of his past life and the chances of better fortune in the future. He gazed on the quiet aspects of both sky and sea. 'The Gods, at least, the myriad Gods look kindly on my fate, knowing that sinful though I be, no penalty here have I deserved such as I suffer in this desolate place.'

As he recited these words, the wind suddenly rose; the sky grew dark, and without waiting to finish the ceremony everyone began hastily preparing to make for home. Just when they had decided to return as quickly as possible, a squall of rain commenced, beginning so unexpectedly that there was no time even to put up umbrellas. The wind was now blowing with unparalled violence and things which the calmness of morning had tempted them to leave carelessly about the shore were seen scattered in every direction. The sea too was rapidly advancing and they were obliged to run for their lives. Looking back they saw that the whole surface of the bay was now covered with a blanket of white foam. Soon the thunder was rolling and great flashes of lightning fell across the sky. It was all they could do to make their way home.

The peasants had never witnessed such a gale before. 'It blows pretty stormy sometimes,' they said, 'but you can generally see it coming up a long while before.' Of such a storm as this, coming on without a moment's warning, they could make nothing at all. Still the thunder crashed, and the rain fell with such violence that each shaft struck deep into the earth. It seemed indeed as though the end of the world were come.

Some of Genji's servants became very restless and uneasy; but he himself settled quietly in his chair and read out loud from the Scriptures. Towards evening the thunder became less violent, but the wind remained very high all night. It was soon apparent that if the wind did not change, the waves would carry away their house. Sudden high tides had often before done great damage on the coast, but it was agreed that such a sea as this had never been seen before. Towards dawn everyone went off to get a little rest. Genji too began to doze a little. There appeared to him in his dream a vague and shadowy figure who said: 'I have come from the Palace to fetch you. Why do you not follow me?' He tried to obey the command, but suddenly awoke. He realized that the 'Palace' of his dreams was that of the Sea God instead of the Palace of the Emperor as he had at first supposed.

The whole import of his dream was that the Dragon King had taken a fancy to him and wished to detain him yet longer on the shores of his domain. He became very depressed and from this time onwards took a dislike to the particular part of the coast in which he had chosen to reside.(4)

(Part 2, Ch. 3, "Exile at Suma," p. 254; Ch. 12 by long count)

Genji's sorrow leads to the entrance of the supernatural. Although this is not one picture, it seems integrated in that initial moment when, facing the ocean, Genji implores the Gods to aid him.

In a scene of fragile loveliness Niou takes Ukifune on a boat ride to Orange-Tree Island:

'We'll take this girl with us,' Niou said, pointing to Jiju, and without a word of explanation as to where they were going, he picked up Ukifune in his arms and carried her out of the house. They seemed to be making straight for the river. Here lay the little boat that she had so often noticed from her window, wondering whether it was ever used; for it looked, she thought, very unsafe.

Now they were pushing off. It seemed a terribly long way to the other shore; Niou felt her clutch at him with alarm. It was a cloudless dawn; the moon burnished the rippling waters that spread round them far and wide. 'We will stop for a moment at that Island,' Niou said, and presently they came to a great ledge of rock that had been converted into a kind of river-garden. 'They call it the Orange-Tree Island,' he said. 'Isn't it amazing that they can get them to grow on such a perch as that? Yet once give them their shovelful of soil and they will fill the place with green, summer and winter for a thousand years.' 'Sooner shall you, O orange-tree, who crowns the little Island, shed your faithful leaves, than this our love grow cold.'

Such was his poem; but she, still counting the hazards of the voyage on which they were embarked, responded: 'Faithful from spring to spring the orange-tree may keep its vow; but whither will have drifted the Lady of the Boat?' He did not resent her distrust, still less rebuke it; such indeed was the spell of the place and moment that nothing she said or did could do otherwise than enchant him.(5)

(Part 6, Ch. 10, "Ukifune," p. 1018; Ch. 51 by long count)

On a visit to his mother Tamakatsura, Sakon no Chujo compares himself to a cherry tree in a speech worthy of Anton Chekhov:

Out in the garden there was, among the many flowering trees, one particular cherry tree with a scent that far exceeded all the rest. Sakon sent someone to pluck a branch and set it in his sister's hands.

'What blossoms!' Himegimi said. 'There's no flower like it.' 'That is the tree,' said Sakon no Chujo, 'about which we had a quarrel when we were small. Each of you said it was Himegimi's, and mother said it was Wakagimi's tree. But no one said it was mine, and I remember that though I did not cry or make a fuss, I was very unhappy about it. It is growing old itself --- this cherry tree,' he went on, 'and makes one feel old along with it. So many people that once shared it with us are gone now.' He spoke sadly, yet half-smiling. The sisters had seldom seen him in so serious a mood. He was married now, and lived with his wife's people, so that he could seldom spend a quiet hour like this at his mother's house. But today he had determined to come, simply for the sake of this tree.(6)

(Part 5, Ch. 3, "Bamboo River," p. 774; Ch. 44 by long count)

Lady Murasaki's sense of comic irony imparts high comedy to the scene in which Buddhist priests discover Ukifune. The humor results from the contrast between the fears of the priests that Ukifune is a fox changed into a woman and the no-nonsense view of Sozu, the chief priest. While the priests are haggling, Ukifune is lying under a tree in need of assistance. Sozu orders one of them to look at Ukifune. Quaking with fright, the priest recites a chant of exorcism; then, hoping his prayers have done their work, he takes hold of the recumbent Ukifune, thinking: "She may only be a woman after all." The eccentric behavior of the priests sustains the plight of Ukifune while lessening its terrifying possibilities. (Part 6, Ch. 12, "Writing-Practice," p. 1084; Ch. 53 by long count.)

Enough has been said to give an idea of the picturesque wealth in The Tale of Genji  The scenes selected suggest Lady Murasaki's world was not a small one. If the life within the novel seems narrow to readers, it is because of historical, philosophical and political limitations, not because Lady Murasaki's breadth of view or depth of understanding was shallow or circumscribed.

1. Anesaki, M. Art, Life and Nature in Japan, Marshall Jones, 1933, 61.
2. Anesaki, M. Mythology of All Races, Marshall Jones, 1928, V. 8, Japanese Section.
3. See reproduction from album painting of The Tale of Genji by Tosa Mitsunori, 17th century, from Tokugawa Art Museum, in Tosa Mitsunori: Tale of Genji, Shogun Art Exhibition Executive Committee, 1983.
4. See reproduction of miniature painting from the Tosa school, 17th century, attributed to Tosa Mitsuoki from the Burke Collection in The Tale of Genji , Legends and Paintings by Miyeko Murase, George Braziller, New York, 2001.
5. A frequently reproduced scene from The Tale of Genji;  See reproduction of miniature painting from the Tosa school, 17th century, attributed to Tosa Mitsuoki from the Burke Collection in The Tale of Genji, Legends and Paintings by Miyeko Murase, George Braziller, New York, 2001; also album leaf by unknown artist (1615-1868) from the Shin'enkan Collection, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and album leaf by an unknown artist, (1615-1858) Gift of Mary L. Cassilly, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
6. See reproduction of miniature painting from the Tosa school, 17th century, attributed to Tosa Mitsuoki from the Burke Collection in The Tale of Genji , Legends and Paintings, by Miyeko Murase, George Braziller, New York, 2001.

NOTE: The above is a revision of a paper that was submitted as chapter 7 of a thesis on Tale of Genji by Richard Amero toward the award of a Bachelor of Arts Degree at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, 1950.

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