This episode of Utakoi is notable for it’s interesting narrative choices…
I don’t think there’s too much disagreement that The Tale of Genji is the most famous book in the history of the Japanese language, and one of the most important in any. It’s widely agreed to be the world’s first true novel, and represents the pinnacle of Heian court culture a thousand years after its writing. That the author was a woman, Murasaki Shikibu (Yuu Kobayashi), might seem surprising to us today, but as we’ve seen in this series women were an important part of the literary hierarchy of the Heian court. Indeed, it was Murasaki’s rival, Sei Shonagon, who was the center of three full episodes of this series, which makes it interesting that Murasaki’s part appears to have been completed in one.
As far as I can tell, Utakoi has gone with an almost entirely fanciful story to surround Murasaki’s entry in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. In part this is surely because very little is known of Murasaki, including her real name and even the year of her death (some say 1014, others 1025). I can find no evidence that her childhood friend Fujiko (Kitamrua Eri) is based on a real person, or that Murasaki was in love with her or any other woman (or man). In that sense this feels like a somewhat arbitrary choice by the mangaka, but it does seem clear that Murasaki had a general dislike of the men at court, although she apparently liked her husband (who died in 999) well enough that she grieved deeply at his death, and was reported to be the mistress of Michinaga, the powerful court politician with whom she exchanged poetry, and who arranged her appointment as a Lady-in-Waiting to his daughter Empress Shoushi. What doesn’t get any attention is the reported dislike between Sei Shonagon and Murasaki – not only did they serve rival Empresses, but they were rival writers as well, and vastly different in personality. Murasaki, particularly, wrote scathingly of Shonagon.
The focus here is instead on Murasaki’s relationship with Fujiko, portrayed as a lifelong friendship that grew into love as they neared adulthood. While Murasaki was demure and scholarly (this much seems historically accurate) Fujiko is presented as a physically strong tomboy, and their relationship as a partnership to fight the domineering role men had in women’s lives – Fujiko’s brawn and Murasaki’s brains, in effect. Of course for the two of them to pursue their love openly would not have been an option in those days, and eventually both were married off by their parents – and Fujiko’s husband was assigned a new job in the provinces, taking her with him. When she returned many years later, Murasaki is shown to have heard about it second-hand, and rushed off to meet Fujiko before she left again, this time for good. But sadly Fujiko ignores her, steps into the carriage and departs, prompting Murasaki to pen poem # 57 in the Ogura:
Again, the interpretation in Utakoi seems to be a fanciful one – but it works as well any interpretation might. The in-story reality is that Fujiko couldn’t bear to have Murasaki see her as she was – a wife with three children, living at the whims of men – a betrayal of the dream they shared as children. Murasaki has faith in her friend, believing that she holds that dream in her heart still, and goes on to compose the subsequent chapters in The Tale of Genji as a sort of celebration of women’s strength and independence, hoping Fujiko will someday read it and understand. It’s a good construction, though part of me wonders if it was really necessary – it seems as though Murasaki’s life and the permanence of her influence is remarkable enough that her story might not have needed such liberal embellishment. On the whole, I thought Murasaki’s story lacked the emotional grip of Sei Shonagon’s, though to be fair it was relayed in much more abbreviated fashion.