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 "Alas, not for long will you see what you do now: any breath of wind may spill from a hagi frond the last trembling drop of dew."

 "When all life is dew and at any touch may go, one drop then the next, how I pray that you and I may leave nearly together!"

"In this fleeting world where no dewdrop can linger in the autumn wind, why imagine us to be unlike the bending grasses?"
—"The Rites", The Tale of Genji, one of the most famous exchanges in all of Japanese literature.

By most modern definitions this was the first written novel, written by a woman known as Murasaki Shikibu; as it was written in the early 11th century, all tropes in it are necessarily Older Than Print at least.

Hikaru Genji (literally "Shining One of the Minamoto Clan") is the son of the Emperor of Japan in the Heian Period (11th Century) and is considered too handsome for his own good. The novel is split into 54 chapters, beginning with the circumstances leading to his birth and ending shortly after his death.

Note that despite sharing a name with the author, Princess Murasaki is not an Author Avatar. In fact, the author was named for the character after the fact, since, like many women from that era, her real name is not known.

Not to be confused with Genji, which is (loosely) based on the Tale of the Heike.


Includes examples of: Edit

  • Anti-Hero
  • Arranged Marriage: A very common custom at the time. Genji marries Princess Aoi shortly after his coming of age due to the high rank of the princess and the relations that his father wanted to build for him.
  • Author Avatar: Subverted, at least for modern audiences. As mentioned in the introduction, the author is named for the character Princess Murasaki, not the other way round. How far the two actually resembled one another is something lost to history.
  • Bishonen: Genji is a prime example, according to the frequent and detailed descriptions of him. Occasional comments are made that, with his beauty, he should have been born a woman.
  • Brother-Sister Incest: At one point the current emperor is Genji's half brother, and he comments that if he'd been a woman, he probably would've taken a "more than sisterly" interest in Genji.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Actually a cultural artifact of the time: frank, direct language was typically considered rude. Most casual conversations between nobles, especially for romantic purposes, were made via allusion, metaphor, and circumlocution, typically via poetry. Genji takes this a bit farther during his more Jerkass moments.
  • Casanova: Even by the standards of the time, Genji's exploits are notorious.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Genji again. Once he takes up with a woman he continues to support and protect her even after he's lost all interest in her sexually - as the Lady from the Village of Falling Flowers and the homely Princess Safflower, among others, can attest.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Lady Rokujo, one of Genji's older lovers.
  • Costume Porn: Most of the detailed descriptions of costumes are cut by modern translators, but they were fully justified when written, because choice of costume told Murasaki's contemporaries all kinds of things about a character.
  • Deadly Decadent Court: Not so much deadly, rivals are usually eliminated by exile rather than assassination, but decadent? Oh yeah!
  • Death by Sex: Or possibly an aneurysm, but this didn't stop Genji from thinking it was something he did.
  • A Death in the Limelight: Several characters receive more character development and sympathy just before they die or leave the narrative.
  • Does He Have a Brother?: Played literally and very squicky.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Genji himself dies in-between chapters. Also happens occasionally to some of his paramours.
  • Even the Guys Want Him: A few of the male characters imagine the beautiful Genji as a woman.
  • Everyone Is Bi: Several male characters are known to burst into tears upon seeing Genji, and Genji himself doesn't let a little thing like gender get in the way of his romantic pursuits.
    • Of course, it should be noted that, at the time, attraction and love affairs between males - particularly if one or both of said males were physically attractive, as bishounen Genji was - were not especially scandalous, or even more noteworthy than a heterosexual affair (so long as certain social conventions were followed, like the requirement that the "passive" partner be a child or adolescent).
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Aside from Genji's friend and retainer Koremitsu, pretty much every single character - including the protagonist - is referred to only by their title, rank, place of residence, or by nickname. And there are multiple retirements, promotions, and moves between houses in the book, meaning that the same name is sometimes used for several characters.
    • Justified, since it was apparently rude in the Heian period to address anyone by their given names.
    • Also, the sources of nicknames could be pretty tenuous. Genji's first wife, Aoi, is only known by that name because the chapter in which she features most prominently includes a poem written by someone else entirely, and having nothing to do with her, which mentions the aoi plant.
  • The Four Gods: At one point Genji and his four wives and concubines settle down in four houses arranged at the cardinal directions.
  • Hidden Elf Village : The novel actually takes place in one ( incomparison to the state of Japan as a whole at the time).
  • The Jeeves: Koremitsu, Genji's manservant, who usually ends up cleaning up Genji's various messes.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: And how! Genji begets the Emperor Reizei on his own father's wife. Decades later Genji's own young wife bears another man's son. To Genji's credit he figures it's no more than he deserves and accepts the boy as his own.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Poor, poor Murasaki. Her Yamato Nadeshiko chops are sorely tested on this one. This is part of the reason why she is willing to raise Genji's daughter by the Akashi Lady as her own, since it's the closest she'll ever come to having kids. She does an excellent job raising her, too, to the point where she eventually becomes Empress.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Although it likely wasn't intentional on her part, Lady Rokujo's wandering spirit kills both Yugao and later Genji's wife Aoi.
  • Not Staying for Breakfast: Very much ritualized in Heian society, meaning that actually staying for breakfast was frowned upon. A man was expected to make a quick and elegant exit after an amorous evening.
    • 'Staying for breakfast' in fact indicated a desire and intention on the gentleman's part of puting the relationship on a formal and official footing. This development was not always welcome to the lady, for all kinds of reasons.
  • Oedipus Complex: It's implied that several of the women Genji admires remind him of his late mother, and this doesn't go without comment from the other characters. Also, his first lover is one of his father's concubines.
    • A concubine who was chosen specifically because she reminded everyone - the Emperor, Genji's father, included - of Genji's late mother.
    • This even initially applies to Murasaki herself as she first came to Genji's attention because of her striking resemblance to Fujitsubo, the aforementioned concubine he's so obsessed with who reminds everyone of Genji's late mother.
  • The Ojou: Most of the female characters fit this in some form or another, being noblewomen in the imperial court at Kyoto.
  • Out, Damned Spot!: After her wandering spirit kills Genji's wife Aoi, Lady Rokujo can smell poppy seeds on her clothing (traditionally used to quell spirits) and she repeatedly tries washing her hair and clothing to get the scent out, to no avail.
  • Painting the Fourth Wall
  • Shotacon:
    • In a fairly famous passage, Genji, having been rejected by a lady he is pursuing, takes her young brother to bed with him. It's not clear whether this scene is supposed to imply sleeps with or "sleeps with", so it may or may not count.
  • Take That: Several characters are based off of people Shikibu knew in her real life, including a reference to Sei Shonagon, a rival woman poet in the court.
  • Tears of Blood: A popular poetic trope of the time, referenced in several poems with regards to emotional upheaval on the part of the characters.
  • Tenchi Solution: For a time, Genji and his four women live peacefully together.
  • Tender Tears: Everybody in Genji's world sheds gallons of tears over mono no aware, the sadness of things.
  • Time Skip: Many. As one example, there are about five years of Genji's life when he was 12 through to 17 that we're told little of - indeed, about the only thing we are told of is that he at least tried to have an affair with his first cousin.
  • Upperclass Twit: Nearly everyone in the story, to great degrees of "Upper Class" and "Twit". Genji says some very dumb things, faints at the drop of a hat (literally), and is totally clueless about how the real world works in many ways. Nevertheless, he's willing to ignore social class in the name of love (The Lady of the Evening Faces), and royal propriety in the name of emergency (when he calls for help after finding one of his paramours wounded or dead in bed beside him)--far more than most of his contemporaries would. His liberalism eventually sees him expelled from the court for a period of time.
    • In fact, the utter cluelessness of the Imperial household and the bureaucrats who served them, and their willingness to outsource their leadership tasks to hired warriors ("Samurai") whom they despised eventually led to the overthrow and downfall of the Heian court depicted in the Tale of Genji. An early Samurai actually appears in one chapter and is roundly mocked and despised for his lack of taste; it was actually a chapter frequently censored because the genteel courtiers couldn't stand even reading a description of such an uncouth person.
      • Genji is physically sickened by the appearance of the father of one of his many lovers, who was the governor of one of the rural provinces. His disfigurement? Tanned skin.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: How much of what happened in the book is true is unknown, but there was a real Genji who may have even read parts of the novel while it was being written.
  • While Rome Burns: While you don't actually see it, this was actually what the Heian court was doing. While Genji is off pursuing his intricate love lives, banditry and warlordism were wracking Japan, and would eventually lead to the Age of the Country at War.
  • Wife Husbandry: Early in the story, Genji and some of his friends discuss the difficulty of finding the perfect woman, and conclude that perhaps the best thing to do is to raise her yourself. This is exactly what Genji later does with Murasaki. This example is so famous that it spawned the term Hikaru Genji Plan, which was formerly used as the trope name for Wife Husbandry.
  • Yamato Nadeshiko: Murasaki can't exactly keep Genji in line (at all), and isn't even officially his main wife. Nevertheless, she is still the "perfect" woman, center of the Imperial household, and Genji's one true love. To the point where, when she dies, he follows in grief shortly thereafter.

Derivative works: Edit