Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, written in the early 11th Century, is considered to be perhaps the world’s first novel. It’s influence spans widely across Japanese culture, including visual arts. In the Edo period, a whole new genre of ukiyo-e was birthed after the publication of Ryūtei Tanehiko’s False Murasaki and a Rural Genji, a serialised reimagining of Tale of Genji, published between 1829 and 1842, with illustrations by Toyokuni III (Kunisada I). It was the number one best selling fiction series for the entire Edo period, leading Toyokuni III to create individual prints around the subject of Genji. The genre was aptly named: Genji-e. The Japanese Gallery holds many Genji-e prints, which centre on various subjects, and heavily around the seasons, particularly spring. Spring is the start of a new cycle, beginnings, and a look toward the future. If nothing else it is a celebration of the warmer days ahead.
Toyokuni III Utagawa (1786-1865), The Tale of Genji – Rokujo, 1856
As we come into the season of spring, looking at Toyokuni III’s masterful works of Genji-e gives insight into how Japanese aristocrats celebrated and appreciated the coming of a new seasonal period and the customs that were popular at the time. At least through an Edo period lens. Connection with the seasons and nature are so important in Japan, that the ancient Japanese calendar had not just four, but seventy-two distinct seasons, which some people still employ today.
Spring is ever present in Murasaki’s writing through metaphorical imagery and poems exchanged by characters, which include seasonal words, known in Japanese as Kigo. Genji-e imagery uses visual keys in the same way, with cherry and plum blossom being seasonal markers. All the prints featured here employ this technique, instantly understood by audiences across generations that they are looking at a snapshot of spring. Genji-e often features well-kept gardens or the lavish quarters of an aristocratic estate, most likely the story’s key setting, Rokujō-in. The construction of Rokujō-in, an extravagant estate that Genji built at the peak of his power, is divided into quarters, each one displaying a particular season’s beauty and each given to one of Genji’s top favoured ladies. Genji’s most important lover, Lady Murasaki (not to be confused with the author), is given the Spring Quarter. Throughout the tale, Murasaki’s striking beauty is associated with red plum blossom, and thus spring itself.
Toyokuni III Utagawa (1786-1865), Prince Genji, Cherry Blossom Viewing, 1859
In Chapter 24, there is a boating party that takes place in the Spring Quarter, which may have been the inspiration for this triptych. In the chapter, Murasaki writes, “Genji had Chinese-style barges made and outfitted, and on the very day they were launched, he summoned people from the Office of Music to perform aboard them”. Although the boats in Toyokuni III’s rendition are not lavish in decoration, they are correct in style. Behind the main boat, a smaller boat can be seen with performers, including one woman holding a shamisen.
Turning to an interior setting in the ‘Sound and Scent of Spring’, you can see the central figure carrying a 13-string Koto. The koto features numerous times through Tale of Genji, including Chapter Eight, ‘The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms’. The notes played in Spring would have been warm and uplifting, compared to the more sorrowful tones played in Autumn. The ever present natural aspect, the peeping of plum blossom branches through the veranda, places the subjects firmly in the first warm months. The ‘scent’ aspect of the triptych also highlights an important part of aristocratic life. Incense was used in the Heian period to convey one’s taste and personality, as much as a Koto performance would have. In Genji, an elaborate seasonal incense creation competition shows how important this practice was. Naturally, Lady Murasaki wins the spring section of the competition, to which Genji remarks, “’Nothing goes better with a spring breeze than a plum blossom’”.
Toyokuni III Utagawa (1786-1865), Sound and Scent of Spring, 1847-1852
Although the Cherry Blossom is now considered a quintessential Spring flower in Japan, Plum Blossom, a bloom that arrives slightly earlier in the season, predates the cherry as an indicator of spring. A little deeper in colour and more sparse flower coverage, the plum creates an elegant feel compared to cherry’s more saccharine notes. Plum blossom often appears in Genji, including Chapter 32 ‘Umegae’, or ‘A Spray of Plum Blossom’. However, while Toyokuni III’s explosion of plum blossoms in ‘Lucky-direction visit’ is in the style of Genji-e, it is most likely unrelated to the Rural Genji Tale. This theme of night flowers appeared popular beyond strict Genji narratives, as other artists began to imitate this style, such as Sadahide’s ‘Cherry Blossoms at Night’. Comparing the two works, one can clearly see the difference between Cherry and Plum blossom.
Toyokuni III Utagawa (1786-1865), Plum Tree Viewing, c.1847-1852
After Genji’s death, the tragedy and melancholy felt is somehow perfectly encapsulated by spring. Murasaki writes of the mourning characters, “It is true, they all thought: the cherry blossoms of spring are loved because they bloom so briefly”. Spring is considered so beautiful precisely because it is so fleeting. Toyokuni III’s prints allow us to capture spring’s full bloom, and hold that brief moment indefinitely.