Romantic Japanese opus ‘Genji’ has inspired for 1,000 years

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A 17th-century painting shows Murasaki Shikibu writing “The Tale of Genji.”
A 17th-century painting shows Murasaki Shikibu writing “The Tale of Genji.”Courtesy Ishiyamadera Ca.

The “Game of Thrones” fan base is nothing compared to the one for “The Tale of Genji.”

That 1,300-page romantic epic has captivated readers for 1,000 years, inspiring a whole subgenre of art.

The Met’s new exhibition, “ ‘The Tale of Genji’: A Japanese Classic Illuminated,” gathers 120 works — everything from fashion and furniture to card games and erotica — that pay homage to Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th-century masterpiece.

“Only the Bible can rival it, in terms of inspiring all these pictorial motifs in so many different formats,” curator Melissa McCormick tells The Post.

The novel centers around Genji, a prince who loses his crown, and his amorous adventures as he tries to reclaim it. Readers over the years have been entranced by the tale’s detailed descriptions of court life — Murasaki was a lady-in-waiting in the empress’ court — as well as its poetry and complicated female characters.

“They are so fleshed out, and they talk to each other about things other than Genji,” McCormick says. “It really passes the Bechdel test.”

Murasaki Shikibu's work has inspired art over the years, such as “Dreams at Dawn” from 1989.
Murasaki Shikibu’s work has inspired art over the years, such as “Dreams at Dawn” from 1989.
©Yamato Waki

She says that Murasaki’s contemporaries devoted themselves to illustrating and distributing the novel among their friends. They even whispered that she was divinely inspired, coming up with “Genji” after seeing the moon’s glittering reflection on the water outside a Buddhist temple.

Those lucky enough to have an illustrated version of “Genji” treated it as an objet d’art. On display here is the lacquered-wood-and-gold “book cabinet,” designed specifically to hold the tome’s 54 chapters.

Others paid homage to the tale in more creative ways: Artists painted, embroidered or etched their favorite scenes onto giant folding screens, silk kimonos and even dishware. The 19th century abounded with “Genji” parodies, and erotica with eye-popping illustrations.

The exhibit closes with a selection of paintings from Yamato Waki’s “The Tale of Genji: Dreams at Dawn,” a sumptuous series of manga versions of the tale that ran for some 15 years. (An English version, collecting all the volumes, will be released this year.)

“I think because the work covers so much ground, people keep finding new ways to look at it,” says McCormick. “It’s really a testament to how much fiction can do.”

“ ‘The Tale of Genji’: A Japanese Classic Illuminated,” through June 16 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave.; MetMuseum.org.

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