“When I am with you, I wonder why I always think of my past.”
About a thousand years ago, a noblewoman, living under the customary seclusion of her day, wrote what many consider to be the first classic novel. Murasaki Shikibu was of the Heian court in Kyoto at a particular time when some of Japan’s greatest literary works were written. As per tradition, she had little communication with men outside of her immediate family and her learning of Chinese was generally frowned upon, but following her husband’s death shortly after the birth of their daughter, she withdrew to a Shingon Buddhist temple. While gazing past an ancient lake by the light of the moon, legend tells us that Murasaki composed The Tale of Genji. Her skill as an author was acknowledged and soon she became a lady-in-waiting at the court, continuing to pen vast prose for the remainder of her life. Sugii’s animated adaptation of Murasaki’s canonical tale captures the atmosphere of the period very well. There is a pensive, unrushed characteristic of the film which is appealing but also an occasional cause of obliqueness. There is not eroticism but passion, not flamboyance but exploration: Buddhism at its most dastardly and sincere.
The film begins with Lord Genji carrying a woman named Yugao through a deserted mansion. She is one of his many mistresses and much beloved. Genji is the emperor’s second prince. It is said, “Nothing rivals him in the Capital” and this is certainly true but, beyond the physical realm, it is soon revealed that he is powerless. When the opening credits clear, we see him being fitted and pampered (to his boredom). Lady Aoi is his first wife and he is less than ecstatic about it. Neither of them feel any real attachment to each other as their marriage was a parental political move. He has many other lovers (there are about fifteen described in the novel): some beautiful, some cold, some intelligent, others meek. His interest in (most of) these women springs from their unattainability and his interest wanes once they are attained.
He has been having an affair with the late first prince’s wife, Miyasudokoro Rokujo (everyone, including the emperor, seem to know about it but it’s officially a secret), for quite some time. She is five years his senior and cynical as to the possibility of their marriage. She is neither the first nor the last love he has conquered recently, yet her pride and jealousy bears an energy that extends beyond the grave. His stepmother, however, is his greatest desire. When Genji learns that the Empress is pregnant, he is conflicted. “I cannot hold back my feelings,” he says to her eventually. Theirs is a doomed path – there can be no easy resolution in the rigid confines of this society. There is a cherry blossom motif which occurs throughout the film representing the cause (or one could say, the result) of this trouble.
The voice acting is superb; often conversational, always emotional. Much of the dialogue contains men talking about women and women talking about men, but it is theatrical and existentially earnest. Featured is a haunting soundtrack that is both fitting to the time period and dynamic. The animation is smooth and tasteful, preferring slow pans and long takes to allow tension to build over time. While a bit dated at first glance, its odd static movements become captivating and surreal. It is a deliberate film with conversations being heard but not seen for minutes on end and characters saying things like, “I have nothing to say.” It’s all done so well though that it’s suffocating serious tone is not painful but blissful. Sugii’s film, however, only adapts the first twelve chapters of the original novel’s fifty-four (entirely understandable considering this spans over a thousand pages). Despite this, it is a worthy adaptation that maintains the essence of its source material in a respectful way.