This is Japan’s oldest literary masterpiece and stands alongside the world’s finest writings. It is widely held to be the world’s first novel and a romantic one at that.

Written around 1000 AD during the Heian period (800–1200), it tells of the romantic exploits of Prince Genji, ‘the shining prince’, who was the emperor’s son by his favourite concubine. It is a major work in that, in the original, it runs to over 1,000 pages, in itself a monumental feat for the time.

The author, Murasaki Shikibu, was a young lady in the court of the emperor, and was in her early thirties when she wrote it. Bearing in mind its age, the beauty of the writing and the complexity of the plot, it is a truly amazing work. Many hundreds of her comments, which she inserts in the main text, are written in the traditional waka, or short verse, a forerunner of Haiku.

Shortly after, its appearance it was illustrated by several artists. This particularly fine illustrated edition is from the British Library and is the work of Tosa Mitsuoki. It also bears a comprehensive introduction by Miyeko Murase. The illustrations are in themselves things of great beauty, and are much admired in Japan. In the original, they are quite small panels, painted in the so-called Tosa school of painting, which leaves open the roof of houses, for example, so that what is happening within can be seen.

Most illustrations show traditional Japanese gardens with flowers and trees in all their beauty. This particular edition is strongly recommended because the additional artwork is delightful.

This review was first published on the author’s Facebook page in February 2019.

The book’s beautiful Japanese art begins with this wonderful cover!

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