Review of The Tale of Genji (1987)

Moving picture, 110 minutes

Seen in 2021.

This adaptation seems to have fallen into obscurity, perhaps because it is a somewhat static, moderately faithful adaptation of the middle section of the novel. Even the language is archaic and largely incomprehensible to me. I watched it with subtitles, but made the mistake of not brushing up on the novel’s plot. It’s not an adaptation for newcomers to the story. Instead, it uses the tool set of animation very well to illustrate that story for typical Japanese readers of it.

The character designs are neither the stereotypes of contemporary Japanese animation, nor simply imitations of classic illustrations; they’re an appropriate compromise. The film’s unusual style doesn’t quite capture the original’s cryptic ephemerality, but it gets about as close as you could get on cels in 1987. The music is a great help, and the subtle special-effects animation adds to an appropriate sense of the numinous when a sort of witchcraft is interpolated as a recurring plot element where the original doesn’t always have one. This ties into the film’s adaptations of Murasaki’s famously proto-modernistic moroboshi and kumogakure chapters, which are not great, but do show the sincerity and good taste of the project.

References here: Asobi Asobase: Workshop of Fun (2018).

moving picture animation Japanese production fiction