The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) is Japan’s most famous work of literature and is thought to be the world’s first novel. Written in the 1000s by the court lady Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973–c. 1014 or 1025), it chronicles the fictional Prince Genji and his descendants, focusing on the aristocratic life and spirit of the times. It has inspired many adaptations through the centuries and remains an important part of Japanese culture today. This pair of screens is ordered around the four seasons depicting scenes from ten different chapters based on what season they occurred in, versus when in the story they chronologically happened. This pair of screens is one of the best examples of The Tale of Genji screens in the US for its use of gold, pigments, heavy detail, and its pristine condition.
This screen contains scenes from the life and times of Genji, the son of an emperor who is passed over for the throne in favor of his older half-brother and is forced to live as a commoner. As is usually the case, Genji is the handsome and talented one and his imperial relatives both admire and fear him. The novel is divided into three sections: the first chronicling the loves and losses of his youth including his love affair with his stepmother, the second his eventual return and reinstatement at court, and the third about his son and grandson. Mia’s screens depict scenes from all three.
A young Genji was intrigued by one of his old nurse's stories about an orphaned princess, Suetsumu hana. But then as he finally meets her, he is quite disappointed, because neither her personality nor her looks appeal to him. Nevertheless he takes pity on her and cares for her needs. In the depicted scene he has one of his men brush the snow off an orange tree in her garden. His carriage and retinue wait outside the gate.
The emperor, Genji’s father, has planned a royal festival, but no women are allowed to attend the actual event. Therefore, the emperor holds a special rehearsal for his beloved wife Lady Fujitsubo, who is now pregnant with Genji’s baby. The beautiful orange hues of the leaves indicate that the scene takes place in autumn. Genji and best friend Tō no Chūjō perform a dance referred to as 'The Waves of the Blue Ocean' (Seigaiha). Screened by bamboo curtains, women watch from inside the building.
In this episode, the Kamō-River ceremony, an important Shinto ritual, is held and the courtiers swarm out in their carriages to watch the spectacle. Genji’s pregnant consort, Lady Aoi, decides to join the ceremony at the last minute. While pushing their way into the festival scene her attendants seriously damage another carriage, which turns out to belong to Rokujō, who was Genji’s lover.
During Genji’s exile in Akashi (a port city around 70 miles southwest of Kyoto), the governor of Akashi encourages him to make advances to his daughter, as he wishes to raise his status through an advantageous marriage. The relationship is not greatly successful because of the daughter’s reluctance. While enjoying the beautiful night scene, Genji regrets that he can’t share this moment with his wife Murasaki in the capital.
The scene in the lower right corner shows Genji and his pupil and later wife Murasaki commenting on old and new pictures with several courtiers. Genji shows his picture diary from his exile in Suma. Genji was sent to Suma by powers his enemy Kokiden, mother of the intended heir, ordered against him. For Genji, having to live in Suma basically meant that life is rustic and not elegant as in Kyoto. As the picture competition continues, Genji’s picture diary from his exile in Suma is praised.
Genji was asked to select a dancer for the Gosechi dances at the harvest festival. After a competition among the prettiest and most talented girls at court, Genji selected his foster brother Koremitsu's pretty daughter. Yūgiri, Genji's son, is peeping through a curtain to get a glimpse of her. It was love at first sight and he penned her a love letter.
A highlight of the end of the year is an imperial outing for hawk hunting. The emperor's carriage is followed by a procession of his relatives and courtiers.
Prince Genji’s nephew, Kashiwagi, is depicted here playing kemari, a courtly version of soccer, together with Yūgiri, Genji’s son, and some other friends under blooming cherry trees, the symbol of spring. During this game Kashiwagi and Yūgiri both catch a glimpse of Onna San no Miya, Genji’s young wife, when a Chinese cat lifts the curtain to her quarters. Such exposure was very compromising for a high ranking lady, as she was not supposed to be seen by males outside her immediate family at all. After this incident Genji’s nephew, Kashiwagi, falls passionately in love with Genji’s wife and a fatal affair ensues.
The tale now turns to Genji’s descendants. During a boat ride on a snowy night, Niou, Genji's nephew, and Ukifune, the lover he found in the town of Uji, exchange poems. As they float down the river, Ukifune, who is falling in love with Niou, describes herself as a boat upon the waters.
The main setting of the last chapters of The Tale of Genji is the town of Uji near Kyoto The consort Ukifune had committed suicide over the impossible position the advances of both Prince Niou, Genji’s nephew, and Kagero had put her in. The two men mourn her suicide and compose poems in her honor.