The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari) was written around 1000-1025 by a woman known to history as Lady Murasaki or Murasaki Shibiku. We know a bit about her--she kept a diary of her life in the Empress's court for several years, and we know the positions her father and husband held and her daughter's name. Her own name, "Murasaki," happens also to be the nickname of her most important female character, so we can assume that it too was a nickname.
Genji is considered the first novel ever written. It is well over 1,000 pages long, 54 chapters; it may or may not be finished. For most of the novel, Prince Genji's relationships with the women in his life are depicted; around chapter 41, he dies, and the loves of his last wife's son, Kaoru, become the focus. Genji is the son of an emperor by a minor concubine, and one of his sons becomes emperor and a daughter an empress, so his life is focussed on the court in Kyoto; but his love of and skill in contriving painting, writing, poetry, dancing and music, beautiful clothing and gardens, and every refinement of living make him an ideal figure. Connoisseur of the arts and nature, he is also a conoisseur of women, and collects a variety of them; he educates Murasaki from the age of 10 and, when his first wife dies, replaces her with this perfect wife, but he also keeps around him as many women he has loved as possible, whether or not he still desires them or they have reciprocated his desires. Kaoru, on the other hand, is drawn to Buddhist asceticism, and falls in love with a philosopher's daughter who, like him, resists love as worldly and transient. While the reader of an English translation has the advantage of sorting out the characters by names, in the original most of the characters are not named; the remarkable quality of the characterization is evident if one considers that readers agree on who is speaking or being discussed among all of Genji's many beloveds. I have drawn up a genealogical table.
The book was illustrated so often through the centuries that there is a genre of painting, Genji-e, "Genji art." A modern Japanese illustration, by the painter Shuseki, of Chapter Five, in which Genji invites Murasaki to play with dolls, can be found at Yukari no Kata.
Below are two images from a series of illustrations by Yamamoto Shunso, published first in 1650 and used in Seidensticker's edition. I have doctored them a bit, adding a little color, to try to bring out the doll images.
|Chapter 7 (Seidensticker
Genji, behind a screen, watches Murasaki and two friends playing with her dolls.
Three or four dolls are depicted, two of them clearly a tachibina pair. Note the shelves at the back of the room.
|Chapter 19 (Seidensticker
Genji's daughter travels to the city with her protective doll. The lady in front carries the child, the lady in back the sword and doll.
Murasaki Shibiku refers to
dolls many times in the novel. The following excerpts are taken from the
translation by Edward Seidensticker (Knopf, 1976). I do not of course
know the words used for the various types of ningyo--the play dolls, the
child's totem doll; however, the translator notes the terms used in the
last chapters for the type of doll cast into the waves for purification
Lavender (Waka Murasaki)
Genji, travelling in the country, spots the little girl Murasaki and becomes enamored of her. He visits her and discusses his intentions with her grandmother and other protectors. After he has left the region, a relative discusses him with her:
The little girl [Murasaki at 9] too thought him very grand. "Even handsomer
than Father," she said.
Later, Genji visits Murasaki in the city, where she is mourning her dead grandmother and can't sleep:
Yes, he had to admit that his behavior must seem odd; but, trying very
hard not to frighten her, he talked of things he thought must interest
Finally, Genji gets Murasaki to his house and begins instructing her in art, writing, and so on.
He ordered dollhouses and as the two of them played together he found himself for the first time neglecting his sorrows. (110)
|Chapter 7, An Autumn Excursion
(Momiji no Ga)
At this point, though her actual wedding-night is still a few years away, Murasaki's nurse begins to introduce to Murasaki the idea that Genji will be more to her than a doll-actor in her life:
"And do you feel all grown up, now that a
new year has come?" Smiling, radiating youthful charm, Genji looked in
upon her. He was on his way to the morning festivities at court.
Genji has been living in exile in Suma, a wild seacoast area inhabited only by fishermen. A crisis occurs on the third day of the third month (now Momo no Sekku or Hina Matsuri, Girls' Day). Murasaki does not explain the ceremony, but evidently the casting of a doll or dolls into the sea was assumed to be part of the purification ceremony. We are not told if the doll is made of paper or straw or cloth, and no mention is made of rubbing it on the body for purification before casting it into the sea. In fact, Genji seems to invest too much of himself in this doll:
It was the day of the serpent, the first such day in the Third Month.
Genji prays in a verse but, as he is standing on the seashore looking so beautiful, the calm sea turns into an appalling storm which rages for days, and which is the King of the Sea's attempt to claim Genji as a lover.
|Chapter 19, A Rack of Cloud
Genji has arranged for Murasaki to adopt his little daughter by a shy, relatively low-born wife (the Akashi Lady) who does not want to move to the city. The child is still small, about two years old, with short thick hair, "pretty as a doll" (333; see 531, below). The mother agrees to send her to Murasaki.
Only the nurse and a personable young woman called Shosho got into the little girl's carriage, taking with them the sword Genji had sent to Akashi [where the child was born] and a sacred guardian doll. (334)
Presumably the little girl is still guarded by an Amagatsu, a doll blessed by a Buddhist priest (her grandfather is a Buddhist priest) and given to the mother before the child's birth; this doll would be destroyed at the ceremony of the "bestowing of the trousers," at which Murasaki soon presides:
Though no very lavish preparations were made for bestowing the trousers, the ceremony became of its own accord something rather special. The appurtenances and decorations were as if for the finest doll's house in the world.... (334-35)
The Maiden (Otome)
Dolls figure in the romance of Yugiri, Genji's son, and his cousin Kumoinokari, whose father disapproves of the match.
Yugiri continued to think of her, in his boyish way, and was careful to notice her [with a letter] when the flowers and grasses of the passing seasons presented occasions, or when he came upon something for her dollhouses.(366)
Kumoinokari, at the age of perhaps twelve, is described thus:
As she leaned over her koto [stringed instrument] the hair at her forehad and the hair of her forehead and the thick hair flowing over her shoulders seemed to him [her father] very lovely.... As she pushed at the strings with her left hand, she was like a delicately fashioned doll. (367)
|Chapter 25, Fireflies (Hotaru)
Genji has Yugiri visit his sister, the Akashi girl adopted in Chapter 19:
The girl was still devoted to her dolls. They made Yugiri think of his own childhood games with Kumoinokari. Sometimes as he waited in earnest attendance upon a doll princess, tears would come to his eyes. (439)
The Typhoon (Nowaki)
Yugiri visits his father's house after a terrible storm:
He went to his sister's rooms.
|Chapter 33, Wisteria Leaves (Fuji no Uraba)
The Akashi lady is reunited after so many years with her daughter, now a future empress:
The girl was like a doll. Gazing on her as if in a dream, the Akashi lady wept, and could not agree with the poet that tears of joy resemble tears of sorrow.... The gods of Sumiyoshi had been good to her. (531: see 333)
|Chapter 34, New Herbs (Wakana)
Genji has married a very young, very royal girl, and Murasaki, despite some jealousy, makes friends with her.
Gently, she sought to draw the princess into conversation about illustrated romances and the like. Even at her age, she said, she still played with dolls. She left the princess feeling, in a childish, half-formed way, that this was a kind and gentle lady, not so old in heart and manner as to make a young person feel uncomfortable. (565)
The Akashi Girl has borne a son to the crown prince; Murasaki, as the young mother's foster mother, enjoys the baby boy:
Always fond of children, she made little guardian dolls for the child and more lighthearted playthings, too. She seemed very young as she busied herself seeing to his needs. (572)
|Chapter 39, Evening Mist (Yugiri)
Yugiri, married to Kumoinokari, has many children by her; but now he his courting a widow who has sent him a letter, which Kumoinokari has seized and hidden from him.
Persuaded that it was indeed an innocent sort of letter, the busy Kumoinokari had forgotten about it. The children were chasing one another and ministering to their dolls and having their time at reading and calligraphy. The baby had come crawling up and was tugging at her sleeves. She had no thought for the letter. Yugiri could think of nothing else. (689)
|Chapter 47, Trefoil Knots (Agemaki)
The ascetic Kaoru has fallen in love with the equally ascetic Oigimi, who has not yielded to him and is dying of despair, self-starvation, and loneliness after her father's death.
She became more sadly beautiful the longer he gazed at her, and the more difficult to relinquish. Though her hands and arms were as thin as shadows, the fair skin was still smooth. The bedclothes had been pushed aside. In soft white robes, she was so fragile a figure that one might have taken her for a doll whose voluminous clothes hid the absence of a body. Her hair, not so thick as to be a nuisance, flowed down over her pillow, the luster as it had always been. Must such beauty pass, quite leave the world? (865)
|Chapter 49, The Ivy (Yadorigi)
The image of a doll cast away on a river runs through the story of Ukifune in the last few chapters of the book.
Kaoru is still mourning Oigimi (older sister) and confides in Nakanokimi (younger sister), now his best friend Prince Niou's wife. She teases him by implying he wishes to float a doll, made in the image of her sister, down a river as purification. He has implied that he would literally worship such an image.
to sorrow," he whispered. "No, it is too much. Let me have a Silencetown
somewhere, a place for quiet tears. Somewhere near that monastery of yours.
No, I don't need a whole monastery. If I could just have a statue [hitokata]
or a picture of her, and set out offerings before it."
Note from E. Seidensticker, the translator: Kaoru has used the word hitokata, shich suggests the images floated down rivers during lustration ceremonies. Mitarashi can have general reference to any stream so used, or specific reference to the stream flowing throught he precincts of the Lower Kamo Shrine in Kyoto.
|Chapter 50, The Eastern Cottage
Nakanokimi has found a half-sister (Ukifune) who resembles Oigimi, and she refers back to the earlier conversation to let Kaoru know about this addition to her household. They exchange verses using the imagery of purification dolls.
...she had presently to recognize
the genuineness of his sorrow. She sighed. Then, perhaps hoping to wash
away part of the pain, she mentioned the "image"of which they had spoken.
An image had come in secret to this very house, she let it be known.
Notes from Seidensticker: The image is of nademono, dolls to which, during lustration ceremonies, impurities and afflictions were transferred by bodily contact. They were then cast away down a stream. "Too many hands are tugging at the nusa; my love it may command, but not my faith." Nusa ... sacred branches hung with strips of paper, were used in lustration ceremonies much as were nademono.
|Chapter 51, A Boat Upon the Waters (Ukifune)
Ukifune has become the mistress both of Kaoru and of Prince Niou. In the complex emotions of love and guilt at betraying both Kaoru and Nakanokimi--and herself--by desiring Niou, she contemplates drowning herself.
was a terrible river, swift and treacherous, said one of the women. "Why,
just the other day the ferryman's little grandson slipped on his oar and
|Chapter 52, The Drake Fly (Kagero)
Kaoru reflects on Ukifume's fate after she appears to have drowned herself:
his ties had been with this river, how deep its hostility flowed!...There
had been bad omens, he now saw, from the start: in that "image,"
for instance, of which Nakanokimi had first spoken, an image to float down