Friday, June 2, 2017

Forgotten Anime: “The Tale of Genji”

Distributor: Central Park Media (USA)
Original Year of Release: 1987
English Video Release: 1995, NTSC VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English subtitles
Japanese Title: Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari)
Runtime: 107 mins

[Originally posted on the "Lost World of Anime" website in 2006, revised version published on the "Lost World of Anime" blog in 2009, second revised version published on Anime Archivist blog in 2012]

Many, many moons ago, I had a website then later a blog devoted to looking at anime released in English but no longer in print. Alas I dumped both as it became a bit of a chore to keep running. Still, I like writing and still have a love for weird and obscure anime stuff, so I’m going to occasionally keep writing about it. For the most part I’ll be rehashing and rewriting old reviews I’ve done long ago, but on occasion I’ll be writing new ones. So here’s the first;

There are very anime released which could accurately describe as arthouse. Most of it is made for a commercial audience, the majority are essentially genre based or straight out exploitation films which are targeted to a niche audience. Hardly any of the more experimental material makes it over to the west. But then again some really strange titles have been released in English speaking markets over the years and this is one of them; an ambitious theatrical anime adaption of Japan’s most beloved piece of classic literature. First up, the synopsis;

It is the Heian Period in Japan. The current emperor’s then favourite concubine, Kiritsubo, died three years after the birth of their only child, Hikaru Genji. Genji is considered to be a commoner but still remains in the family under the non-royal Genji clan. Over the years Genji transforms into an extremely handsome and talented man, and has admirers all across the court. Although he has an arranged marriage to Aoi, his friend To no Chujo’s sister, the boredom of his life gets to him, and he has many affairs with the women of the court. Throughout this time, Genji seems to be haunted by the spirit of his mother. Phantom cherry blossoms and her kimono sometimes appear during his meetings with his lovers.

One of his lovers is Fujitsubo, the emperor’s current favourite concubine. Such is his lust for women that he even takes away and cares for a young orphan girl named Murasaki so that she will grow up to be his lover one day. Word soon spreads that Fujitsubo is pregnant. Genji goes to her to ask if the child is his, but her lady in waiting pleads with him to leave and tells him that the child is the emperor’s. Soon after, Aoi becomes pregnant, but during contractions, she becomes ill and delirious. Another of Genji’s lovers, Miyasudokno, has seemingly possessed her, and she communicates through Aoi that she doesn’t want to give him up. Though the birth is eventually successful, Aoi dies some time later. In another blow to Genji, his father, the emperor, dies. Due to Genji’s position the eldest son of the emperor is made crown prince. Fujitsubo is distraught at the death of the emperor, and leaves the court to become a Buddhist Nun. Genji’s becomes depressed and laments the fact that everyone seems to desert him. Genji has another dangerous affair, this time with the current emperor’s favourite concubine. He is caught out by the concubine’s father who reports it to Lady Kokiden, the emperor’s highest ranking consort. She has always disliked him, and uses this information to exile him from the court.

This amazing movie is based upon the world’s oldest surviving novel, “Tale of Genji”, written by a woman named Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century. The film was commissioned by Asahi Shinbun newspaper to mark its 100th anniversary. Directed by Gisaburo Sugii who has directed a diverse range of anime from “Touch”, “Night on the Galactic Railroad” and “Street Fighter II: the Movie”, has sensibly decided not cram the whole one thousand page novel into a two hour film. Instead the focus is on chapters four to ten (there are 54 chapters in the novel). These chapters follow Genji as a young adult in the court and chronicle the affairs he has during that time.

I had an extremely difficult time writing the synopsis for this movie. I personally find the film is an absolute joy to watch, but due to its slow moving and somewhat abstract nature, coupled with the fact you would probably need to be a little familiar with the back story of novel, its hellish trying to explain what this film is about. I’ve had to add more of the back story to my synopsis, which isn’t actually presented in the film. I also had a bit of a problem keeping up with Genji’s multitude of affairs, so please excuse me if I didn’t get the order of events 100% correct. I first saw the film at a film festival a decade ago and wasn’t in the right mood for it. Though I thought it was quite beautiful, my impression of the film wasn’t that great. All I could see was a film about a guy who screws every woman he can, than at the end of the film he dances around a giant blossoming cherry tree. After I got the film on video, and researching the background behind it, I can certainly appreciate it a whole lot more.

As I mentioned before, Gisaburo Sugii had previously directed the film “Night on the Galactic Railroad”, which is also based on a classic Japanese novel. Both that film and “Genji” are somewhat similar in the way they are presented. “Genji” is much less abstract than “Night on the Galactic Railroad”, but it still has a dream-like quality about it. My favourite sequences are the ones where Genji’s mother seems to be haunting him. Her kimono and/or cherry blossoms appear whenever he is with a lover, suggesting that the affairs to him are subconsciously a replacement for the love and comfort he never got from his mother. You can also feel from the film that although Genji seems to have everything he could desire, inside he is empty, unable to feel truly satisfied with life. Apart from needing to have some knowledge of the original text, there are some other problems with the film which may prevent an audience from understanding and appreciating it. While the character design is quite elegant and beautiful, the sameness of the designs, especially with the female characters, can make it difficult at times to figure out which woman Genji is with. The film constantly jumps forward in time without any warning, and this makes it quite difficult to figure out how old Genji is and where in time the story was. Genji’s character doesn’t seem to age, so that doesn’t help the audience figure out how much time has passed either. The slow pacing would also test a lot of people’s patience.

Personally I can overlook these flaws in the film. Although it seems quite similar in style to “The Sensualist” (another anime film based upon a Japanese classic novel also released on video in English. I’ll be looking at this at a later date), this film doesn’t concentrate on the sexual aspect of Genji’s affairs. Even though there is some minor nudity, there is no sex to speak of. The only real sex scene as such is so subtlety done a lot of people would probably miss it. Even though I have mentioned knowing the back story to the film would be beneficial in enjoying it, you could actually watch this film without knowing anything about the novel. The problem though that the film is probably a little too abstract and way too slow for most audiences. You could say that this film is an arthouse anime feature. If you enjoy arthouse films, you’ll probably love “Genji”. People who like fast moving action films would probably walk out on it during the long opening credits. The Central Park Media VHS tape is very difficult to come by for well over a decade now. It usually goes for well over US$150 when you can find a copy. If you do love film as art, and come across a copy for sale, don’t hesitate, buy it immediately. This is truly a beautiful and scarce kind of film that goes against the norm in anime, in subject matter, pacing and just about everything. It is such a shame that few anime films like this exist.

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