Genji’s World in Ja­panese Wood­block Prints, and Keep­ing in Touch: The Cul­ture of Let­ter-Writ­ing in Ja­pan

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The Morikami Mu­seum and Ja­panese Gar­dens’ new ex­hibit, “Genji’s World in Ja­panese Wood­block Prints,” fo­cuses on two books: the 11th-century novel “The Tale of Genji” and its weirder, 19th-century reimag­in­ing “A Rus­tic Genji by a Fraud­u­lent Murasaki.” The first stands among the world’s ear­li­est nov­els, writ­ten by Lady Murasaki Shik­ibu, the em­peror’s ladyin-wait­ing at Ky­oto’s im­pe­rial court. It con­cerns a hand­some but in­sa­tiable Ja­panese prince who sleeps with one love in­ter­est af­ter an­other. The other book one is a time-warped, il­lus­trated par­ody set amid the sa­mu­rais of Ja­pan’s 15th century, with char­ac­ters who flaunt the lat­est in­19th-century fash­ion.

The 54-chap­ter “Tale of Genji” has for the past mil­len­nium sup­plied in­spi­ra­tion for movies, Kabuki the­ater, Noh plays, anime, fine arts, manga, play­ing cards and board games. Sto­ries of Genji the Lothario have also wound their way into Ja­panese wood­block prints and book il­lus­tra­tions, 60 ex­am­ples of which are on dis­play through When: Through May 18 Where: Morikami Mu­seum and Ja­panese Gar­dens, 4000 Morikami Park Road, Del­ray Beach Cost: $8-$14 Con­tact: 561-495-0233 or Morikami.org May18 at the Morikami. The pieces are on loan from Clare­mont, Cal­i­for­nia’s Scripps Col­lege and from pri­vate col­lec­tors in Pasadena.

“This is the Shake­speare of Ja­panese lit­er­a­ture,” says Veljko Du­jin, the Morikami’s cu­ra­tor of col­lec­tions, dur­ing a tour of the ex­hibit. “Youcouldn’t es­cape it. It was mass-pro­duced into ev­ery kind of medium, which is why it’s so pop­u­lar now. The wood­block prints that il­lus­trated parts of the book cost as much as a mod­ern-day con­cert poster.”

Much of the sprawl­ing Genji art here is drawn from “A Rus­tic Genji by a Fraud­u­lent Murasaki,” poet Ryutei Tane­hiko’s set of se­ri­al­ized books, writ­ten be­tween 1829 and 1842 with pop­u­lar print­maker Uta­gawa Ku­nisada. Its cen­tral fig­ure is the gal­li­vant­ing Genji sur­ro­gate Mit­su­uji, seen in Kuni- sada’s en­chant­ing prints wan­der­ing into Kabuki the­aters with beau­ti­ful women (“Stylish Gen­tle Genji — The­ater Dress­ing Room”); boat­ing in spring­time; re­cov­er­ing stolen “Ashik­aga swords” with a lover; or con­tem­plat­ing the win­ter as Ja­panese chil­dren have snow­ball fights and craft snow-frog crea­tures (the dip­tych “The Eleventh Month”).

“This was elite liv­ing,” Du­jin says. “Lives were filled with po­etry, ap­pre­ci­a­tions of ceram­ics and writ­ing. But what has made Genji so en­dur­ing is his cross­over ap­peal. You can pluck him out of his orig­i­nal time pe­riod and­make him a mod­ern fig­ure.”

A com­pan­ion ex­hibit, “Keep­ing in Touch: The Cul­ture of Let­ter-Writ­ing in Ja­pan,” con­tains roughly 100 Ja­panese writ­ing tools, ink­stones, paper and other sta­tionery, all of which ap­pears fre­quently in the nearby Genji il­lus­tra­tions. The collection spans fifth-century Chi­nese earth­en­ware to New Year’s Day post­cards and 19th-century Ja­panese writ­ing boxes, which were or­nate and lac­quered con­tain­ers for hold­ing ink­stones, wa­ter drop­pers, paint­brushes and pens.

“We’ve wanted to put this ex­hibit on for a long time,” Du­jin says. “‘The Tale of Genji’ is just filled with letters of cor­re­spon­dence that char­ac­ters would write to other char­ac­ters. And be­sides, when­wasthe­last time you even mailed a let­ter to some­one? This is a throw­back to a time when mail car­ried a per­son­al­ized touch.”

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