Genji - a tale where go shines through

John Fairbairn

The Tale of Genji is one of the world's great novels - maybe even the first - and not just because it features go so much. Of soap opera dimensions, it is, on the surface, a pyschologically rich and compelling chronicle of the love affairs of
Murasaki Shikibu
Hikaru Genji, the Shining Prince. But at a deeper level it is about the thoughts and emotions of the author, the Lady Murasaki Shikibu.

This lady, born around 973, was an aristocrat in the Heian Court of early Japan, though not quite of as high a rank as she would have liked. Like most of her class she was obsessed with elegance, taste and beauty, and with generally making a good impression. Being a good go player, as she clearly was, would have certainly earned merit. Her own interest in the game no doubt explains in part the frequent and detailed references to go, though as she was describing in detail the world she knew, such references would have been inevitable anyway.

The first major go scene occurs early in the book, in the Utsusemi chapter. The hormone-driven teenager Genji contrives to spy on a woman who has so far rejected his advances. That has made him only more smitten. He watches her play go with another lady. He sizes her up as well, of course.

Apart from the recent comic Hikaru no Go, the book has inspired countless
ISBN 4-08-779138-6
Genji may not have been a master go player, but his Heain court inspired the manga character Fujiwara no Sai and his modern embodiment, Hikaru
works of art and scholarly discussions. This particular scene has attracted many artists of scrolls and prints.

The mechanics of the scene have been much discussed. Murasaki describes an arrangement of two women playing go in a room where screens were partly raised because of the hot weather. In those days, women generally kept out of sight of unrelated adult men. In case some sort of contact was inevitable, they kept themselves behind screens and well covered in voluminous kimonos, with faces masked by long, draping hair. Pushkin's famous excitement at the glimpse of an ankle would have been felt by Genji every time the ladies made a move on the go board by briefly poking out a hand. The fact that he had to remain hidden only heightens the excitement. But how he could have remained hidden so long and seen so much has mystified many readers. Some have concluded that the arrangement described was physically impossible.

The very frequency of such intimate indoor scenes is probably the explanation for the development of the characteristic "blown-off roof" (fukinuki yatai) style of early Japanese painting in which the roof is removed and perspective is tilted to about 45 degrees, so that the viewer can be a spy too. The equally characteristic style of rendering figures more or less as ciphers with faces drawn with a simple hook for a nose and dots for eyes (hikime kagibana) was intended also to allow the viewers to superimpose themselves on the characters. Later, the details of the various images became standardised (an example is the lamp in the case of this scene) and were taught by painting masters to aspiring students.

With so much thought, discussion and innovation inspired by scenes such as this, it would be surprising if the go elements had not been chewed over, too. They have, though not as much as they deserve, and have been rather disregarded by western scholars. Let us try to rectify that.

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