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Tale of Genji: A Thousand Year Enigma

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TALE OF GENJI: A THOUSAND YEAR ENIGMA (Genji Monogatari: Sennen no Nazo) (Japan, 2011) Directed by: Yasuo Tsuruhashi Genre: Period / Romance

Tale of Genji: A Thousand Year Enigma is based on Japan’s oldest known romantic literary work, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese novelist, poet, and lady-in-waiting at the Imperial Court during the Heian period. The film weaves two parallel stories — a fictional tale of Prince Hikaru Genji and the reality of Lady Shikibu.

The film starts when Lady Shikibu (Miki Nakatani), a novelist and lady-in-waiting, walks at the Imperial Palace one night when Prince Hikaru Genji sees and chases her until they reached the forest. There, Genji asks her to surrender and ravished her until morning.

The next scene shows Lord Fujiwara (Noriyuki Higashiyama) ordering Lady Shikibu to write a romantic novel to inspire his daughter, Soshi (Misako Renbutsu) to fall in love with the Emperor. If that happens, Fujiwara will be more powerful.

However, Lady Shikibu is secretly in love with Lord Fujiwara and uses that inspiration to write a novel using him as the model for her character, Prince Hikaru Genji. In her story, all the ladies of the court love Prince Genji but he is in love with the Emperor’s wife, Lady Fujitsubo (Yoko Maki), his stepmother , who happens to look like his deceased mother, adding an Oedipal aspect to their relationship. Unable to have her, he channels his affection between his wife, Aoi (Mikako Tabe), and a mysterious beauty, Yugao (Sei Ashina), whom he meets by chance.

On the other hand, the Emperor marries Shoshi and they had a son, thus the novel has accomplished its primary purpose. However, Lord Fujiwara has come to desire Lady Shikibu as much as her prose but she is obsessed with herself in Genji’s lovers in the story. Therefore the writing continues until the love, envy, and hate in her towards Genji creates a blurred line between fantasy and reality that justifies the first scene.

At first, I thought it was a May-December affair between Shikibu and Genji. As the film progresses, the fictional story and reality intercut seamlessly, with sporadic bursts of the supernatural. Other reviews say that the film is Yasuo Tsuruhashi’s interpretation of how the legendary novel came into existence a thousand years ago by making Lady Murasaki Shikibu as one of the characters. This period film is not easy to understand if one is not familiar with the entire background surrounding Genji Monogatari, Lady Murasaki, and the historic background of Heian period. Some may find this film a handful to absorb in one sitting.

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