Channel Markers and The Barrier Gate (1631) by Tawaraya Sotatsu (circa 1570-circa 1640), one of a pair of six-panel folding screens, Edo period (1615-1868), on loan from Seikado Bunko Museum, Tokyo. National Treasure

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is showing the exhibition Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated, the epic tale of Heian period court life by Murasaki Shikibu, which explores its influences on Japanese Art, from classical Japanese painting, ukiyo-e prints and Japanese books to manga.

How has this epic tale stayed relevant to Japan’s changing society over the centuries? This exhibition of Tale of Genji aims to find the answer by focusing on the artistic traditions inspired by Japan’s most celebrated work of literature andpresents the most comprehensive introduction to the visual world of Genji ever shown outside Japan.

The classic describes the life of the prince, Hikaru Genji (Shining Genji), from the amorous escapades of his youth to his death, continuing with the lives of his descendants – all in 54 chapters. Prince Genji manages to maintain an unfailing dignity while passing through this landscape of life, death, and love. The tale also introduces into the narrative some of the most iconic female characters in the history of Japanese literature. With its vivid descriptions of imperial society, gardens, and architecture set in medieval Japan, the tale has fascinated audiences across the globe for centuries and inspired artistic traditions for a thousand years.

Buddhist Reception of the Tale

Organised thematically, the exhibition pays special attention to the Buddhist reception of the tale, whilst also giving prominence to Genji’s female readership and the important works by female artists. As this exhibition shows, at every stage of its history, writers and artists have responded to the original narrative with remarkable creativity in order to make the complex plot line and dauntingly large roster of characters more accessible and appealing to its readers, or audience.

Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting at the early 11th-century Heian imperial court (794-1185), when Japan’s capital was at Kyoto (then Heian-kyo), The Tale of Genji can also claim fame to being the first psychological novel. Major themes throughout the text are concerned with love, lust, and the interaction of members of the opposing sexes along with the personal feelings of affection, friendship, filial loyalty, and family bonds. Universal emotions.

To reflect the importance of the book and its influence down the centuries, there are more than 120 Genji-related works on view, including paintings, calligraphy, silk robes, lacquer wedding set items, a palanquin for the shogun’s bride, and popular art such as ukiyo-e prints, plus modern manga interpretations. Highlights of the show include  two National Treasures, as well as several works designated as Important Cultural Properties and, for the first time outside Japan, objects from Ishiyamadera Temple (the place where, according to legend, Shikibu started writing the tale).

National Treasures on View

The first National Treasure on view, on loan from Seikado Bunko Art Museum, is a pair of screens by the Rinpa master Tawaraya Sotatsu (circa 1570-1640), Channel Markers and The Barrier Gate, depicting two chance encounters between Genji and a former lover. The second is the Heian-period Lotus Sutra with Each Character on a Lotus, from the Museum Yamato Bunkakan.

These works are on view for six weeks and will then be rotated with other masterpieces over the course of the exhibition. However, works recognised as Important Cultural Properties can be seen throughout the exhibition, including album leaves by Tosa Mitsunobu (1539-1613), from the Kuboso Memorial Museum of Arts, Izumi that are shown together with rare Tosa School album paintings from the Harvard Art Museums with additions from The Met’s own collection.

The exhibition has been designed to be viewed in eight sections with the first being ‘The Tale at Hand’, displaying Genji manuscripts and calligraphic excerpts of great historical significance and visual appeal to not only convey the history, but also to explore the long period that the novel has been read. The second section, ‘At Ishiyamadera Temple,’ sheds light on the temple whose hall contains a ‘Genji Room’ that commemorates the legend that Murasaki started writing the long narrative within the temple precincts, overlooking nearby Lake Biwa.

This section features a number of masterpieces from the temple itself, including the 17th-century Portrait-Icon of Murasaki Shikibu by Tosa Mitsuoki (1617-1691), whose inscription transforms the simple imaginary portrait of the author into a proclamation of the relationship between The Tale of Genji and Buddhist beliefs. Also in this section is The Met’s Buddhist altar that has been decorated with a display of Buddhist ritual paraphernalia along with objects from Ishiyamadera temple, including a 10th-century Buddhist sculpture – a seated bodhisattva Nyoirin Kannon, designated an Important Cultural Property.

The Story of The Tale of Genji

The tale’s plots and main characters are introduced in the fourth section, ‘Story: The Art of Genji’. The novel influenced and shaped how people engaged with the world and conducted their lives: individuals acted out episodes from the book, behavioural guides for women used characters from it as examples, and aristocrats and warriors recreated Genji’s fictional gardens and architecture in real life. Works in the section ‘Genji as Lived Experience’ show a bridal palanquin from the Smithsonian Institution (commissioned to transport Atsu-hime, wife of the 13th Tokugawa shogun), which as an interior that is embellished with scenes from the tale.

In the same section, The Met’s Shoin Room is fitted with custom-made bamboo blinds and a curtain of state, like those that can be seen in paintings throughout the exhibition, as well as lacquer wedding-set items with auspicious decorations associated with The Tale of Genji. Textiles are also on view, including Edo-period garments with elegant compositions featuring scenes from the tale, as well as noh costumes.

While Genji paintings are rightly associated with bright colours and glittering gold, numerous examples also follow the characteristically East Asian hakubyo (monochrome painting). A section of the show is dedicated to the genre and uses as illustration a pair of ink-line Genji screens, a selection of small albums, and some of celebrated monochrome scrolls from the John C Weber Collection and the New York Public Library.

More modern visual interpretations of the tale are represented by Nihonga. These works show the way in which the tale has continued to function as a touchstone for artists in the modern era, who combine traditional techniques and subjects with approaches from Western art. The anchor for this section is a 20th-century pair of screens entitled The Uji Princess by Matsuoka Eikyu (1881–1938), on loan from the Himeji City Museum.

These and other works address the ways in which the novel has continued to function as a touchstone for artists in the modern era, who combine traditional techniques and subjects with approaches from Western art. The Eikyu screens are modelled, in part, on the 12th-century Genji scrolls (Genji Monogatari Emaki). The original surviving sections of this famous 12th-century scroll (not in the exhibition) are now fragmented and have been mounted for conservation reasons.

The existing pieces represent only a small proportion of the original work (if it was ever complete) and are divided between two museums in Japan, Tokugawa Art Museum and the Gotoh Museum, where they are only briefly exhibited, again for conservation reasons, with both groups are designated National Treasures.

Ghosts and Spirits

Ghosts and spirits are a familiar theme in Japanese folklore and in the next section ‘Phantom Genji’ there are the so-called Phantom Genji Scrolls (circa 1655), which use gold, vibrant colours, and exquisite detailing to depict scenes that had never before illustrated in the history of Genji painting. Outside Japan, the most important cluster of these dispersed scrolls is in New York City, with examples in The Met’s Mary Griggs Burke Collection and the New York Public Library’s Spencer Collection – they will be shown together, here, for the first time.

From the 17th century onwards, The idea of Genji responded to Edo urbanity and could take advantage of the emerging printing technologies and the evolving commercial culture that ushered in a new era of Genji culture. The first illustrated printed books of Genji appeared in 1650, resulting in an unprecedented level of readership. The Edo period was also the age of the Genji parody, and examples of delightful and often humorous ukiyo-e that place the novel’s characters in contemporary scenarios are plentiful.  The section relating to this period, ‘Genji in the Floating World’ has an array of  prints from the genre.

Genji Goes Modern

The exhibition’s last section, ‘Genji Goes Modern’, introduces, in two rotations, a series of original manga drawings by Yamato Waki that were inspired by  the tale. He translated Genji into the comic book idiom, making Murasaki’s tale accessible to a whole new generation of readers, yet again. Included in the exhibition is a video presentation of the artist creating designs for the series Asaki yumemishi (Fleeting Dreams) that demonstrates the complex process of creating manga. The artist began illustrating this best-selling magnum opus in 1979.

Most modern printed editions of the book are based on a 13th-century compilation made by the poet Fujiwara no Teika. More than 10,000 books are supposedly said to have been written about Genji, as well as countless scholarly essays, commentaries, and monographs. There have been conflicting schools of thought about the tale from at least since the 12th century, as different versions of the book were passed down in certain noble clans like secret family treasures.

The Tale of Genji is still tremendously important as a national novel, the tale continues to survive and be reborn in the 21st century as an idealised version of the Japanese past. Although the original manuscript of The Tale of Genji sadly no longer exists, it can still be seen as a nationalistic text – a vivid depiction of the lasting subtly of Japanese culture. The tale continues to lend itself to multiple interpretations and so can reinvent itself and speak to every generation in many contexts – this is part of its enduring appeal.

In the modern world, it has been translated by the use of pictures, translated into modern Japanese and many other languages and is continually recreated in manga and animé. It is possibly now the most popular choice, as its medieval language has become inaccessible to the majority. Millions of adaptions of the book are sold today and it has even been adapted into a form for women’s gossip magazines – something that has become extremely popular with young girls in Japan. It remains fascinating, lavish, romantic and psychological – a tale from the distant past that is continues to be enjoyed from generation to generation.

The Tale of the Genji, 5 March to 14 June, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, metmuseum.org. There are exhibition Tours: Fridays 15 and 29 March, 10.30-11.30 am. The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated, with essays by John T Carpenter, Melissa McCormick, Monika Bincisk, and Kyoko Kinishita, The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, $65/£45