The Tale of Genji, for example, is a very long novel that is distinctly Japanese in every sense. Even in modern times, we see this disposition towards adaptability very prominent in Japanese culture, especially with all that Japan has borrowed from America. The greatest modern example is in the area of animation. In adapting American animation, they created a brand new worldwide phenomenon known as anime. Anime is just another product of Japanese willingness to assimilate ideas and concepts around them and incorporate them into their cultural growth. In fact, anime is something that has actually now been adopted by other countries, in much the same way as Japan adopted so many other things. Anime opens up a window into Japanese culture and how it views the role of literature.
Despite being influenced by so many foreign countries, most especially China, Japan was able to retain its individuality and originality. W.G. Aston wrote a great deal on the subject in the book, A History of Japanese Literature. While Japan has its own “native originality of character,” it is quite clear that the Japanese for so long have learned and adapted so much from other cultures to help them develop their own culture. Perhaps it has been their highly receptive attitudes and their tendency to have very open minds which allows the Japanese to learn so many useful things from other cultures. The Japanese continue to maintain their culture quite well despite all of the borrowing. Japan’s written language may have been adapted from China, but the ideas written with it are very much Japanese.
Over the centuries, the Japanese have proven themselves to be “innovators rather than imitators.” Early on, the Japanese attentively copied Chinese characters, but they soon learned to suit the language to their own purposes. The Japanese learn a great deal from other cultures and then flawlessly integrate what they have learned into their own culture.
Interestingly enough, Japan shares some striking similarities to Britain during the same period. Both Britain and Japan are island nations that in those times greatly benefited by being adjacent to continental civilizations superior to them in both cultural advancement and technology. The major differences, however, lie in what they actually borrowed. Britain borrowed Christianity from continental Europe, which would have a profound effect on Britain. Japan borrowed Buddhism from China, but it would be Chinese writing that would have a major effect on the nation of Japan.
Early Japanese literature clearly shows the influences of China. The first main difference between the Kojiki and the Man’yoshu versus the Tale of Genji is that the first two were written in Chinese while Genji was written in vernacular Japanese. Gayle Feldman wrote in her article “Laboring for a Living Classic” in an August 2001 edition of Publishers Weekly that many folks would agree that Genji marked the beginning of the Japanese literary tradition that lives on today.
The Kojiki, or Record of Ancient Matters, and the Man’yoshu poetry are important precursors to future Japanese literature. The Kojiki reflects a Japanese nation heavily influenced by Chinese political ideas But it can be said that the Man’yoshu may provide a better understanding of Japanese culture in that period than in epic histories. It also reflects some of the basis for later Japanese literature.
In the Man’yoshu, much of the poetry reflects the idea that “the whole world can be writ small in a single, inconsequential event, such as the falling of a leaf of the blossoming of a cherry tree.” An emphasis on concreteness and simplicity was always the case in Japanese poetry of that time; whereas their Chinese counterparts debated heatedly about style, the Japanese had it all worked out to their satisfaction – yet another example of Japanese innovativeness.
The origins of the Tale of Genji are as astonishing as the work itself. Genji is an 11th-century work written by a woman that history often refers to as Lady Murasaki. Larry Shumway wrote on Lady Murasaki in his 2003 paper “Contextualizing the Tale of Genji with Other Arts of Its Period” in the academic journal Interdisciplinary Humanities. Her true name has not been passed down over the years. However, that is not particularly hard to explain because women did not have much status in early Japanese courts as it was.
Lady Murasaki, on the other hand, did have quite some status and would gain more with the release of her work on Genji. J. Thomas Rimer wrote on this subject in his A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature. It is not hard to understand why she became such a legend, either. Genji is an absolute epic. It is one of those very long and involved stories for which readers need to be prepared to read in its entirety to truly enjoy.
The story’s hero is Prince Genji, known as the “Shining One,” and it is a story that gives considerable insight into the Japanese culture in the Heian period of their history. What makes this story a classic, however, are how readers learn along with Genji and through the story come to a better understanding of life along with him. Genji’s story is not simply a long novel, but a “prose epic of real life.”
As Japanese literature expert W.G. Aston wrote,
“The Genji Monogatari is realistic in the best sense of the word. Here we see depicted men and women, especially women, as they are, in their everyday lives and surroundings, their sentiments and passions, their faults and weaknesses.”
Not enough can be said how good the Tale of Genji really is. “Like all great works of literature,” writes J. Thomas Rimer, “The Tale of Genji is more moving than anything that can be said about it.” These stories of learning more about one’s self through not only experiences but also through those who are around you and who you come to meet throughout life are an integral part of much of modern Japanese literature.
The details offered in Genji are so very numerous though are not portrayed as ornately as much of Western literature at that time; at least, not in the way we consider ornate. W.G. Aston wrote that Genji “is free from any redundance of descriptive adjectives or profusion of metaphors such as we are accustomed to associate with the word ornate.” The “miracle” of Genji, according to Nobel Prize winner Kawabata Yasunari, is how sophisticated Lady Murasaki’s insights into Japanese society really were.
The principle theme of the Tale of Genji is aware, or sadness, and the “passing away of good things: such as refinement, beauty, and ultimately life.” But it deals with so much more than that. At one point in the narrative, Genji actually talks about the origins of fiction with the young Princess Tamakatsura. The princess was quite interested in the popular fiction at that time, and Genji explained to her the meaning of fiction and why authors write it. In a manner of speaking, Genji explained the entire purpose for which fiction itself is written. Rimer writes,
He said that an “author certainly does not write about specific people, recording the actual circumstances of their lives. Rather it is a matter of his being so moved by things, both good and bad, which he has heard and seen happening to men and women that he cannot keep it all to himself but wants to commit it to writing and make it known to other people – even to those of later generations. This, I feel sure, is the origin of fiction” (as translated by Ivan Morris).
As Japanese literature expert Richard Hooker writes, the Tale of Genji is also about the Prince’s “attempts to refine himself, to pursue beauty and refinement.” Miyabi, “an aesthetic of the upper classes [which] distinguished life at court from everyday Japanese life” is a major player in the story. Miyabi is an “appreciation of fine things and beauty; one of the objects of Miyabi is the beauty of women.”
“However,” Hooker writes “since the novel primarily concerns the knowledge that things pass away, the refinement chronicled in the novel is seen from a nostalgic point of view, a way of life or a shining moment in Heian culture that, at the time of the writing of the novel, had passed away.”
The best of anime follows a similar theme of sentimentality, often in a serial episodic format, reflecting on some part of Japanese culture, or sometimes even a cultural aspect adapted from the Western world. Genji’s tale is so long that it has to be split up into quite a few episodes, and the only way to fully understand the story is to read it all. To fully understand a great anime, it is much the same way. It must be seen in its entirety to be fully enjoyed, because the plot lines are often so rich that missing a few episodes can leave even the most attentive viewers befuddled.
In the Tale of Genji, while many parts of the text can be enjoyed in and of themselves, yet another amazing thing about the work, their true significance and power lies in understanding their connection to the bigger picture. In fact, some of “the most powerful and persuasive passages” of all are said occur after the death of Genji himself. While so very few animes even attempt to reach such an incredibly epic scale as Genji, the meaning of each episode in a series is often not completely understood until the final few episodes in which everything starts to become understood.
The structure of Japanese literature is considerably different from that of Western literature. Japanese literature is often written with a different intent than is Western literature. Rimer writes, “The intent of Japanese literature is to provide the reader with a means to develop in one's self, through an immersion in the text, an ability to intuit the deep realities of life as perceived by the author.” Many modern Japanese novels reflect this intent, as well. Those in the West who have translated the story into English have had trouble keeping its original intent.
Literature from the East, especially that from Japan, is often quite confusing to Western cultures, as Larry Feldman has written. In the case of Genji, that difficulty is compounded by how many things have changed in Japan as well since the book was written. Genji is an example of a story that involves so many different events and characters that character and term lists, as well as footnotes, are often needed for Western readers to fully comprehend what they are reading.
Japanese tales and Western tales often differ in how they proceed. Sometimes, Japanese stories are far less straightforward than their Western counterparts, and this can make for a good deal of confusion. The complexity and amount of details involved frustrates many who hope to understand it but do not take the time to try. Real life is full of such complexities, and Japanese literature emulates real life more than many other world literatures.
However, it is true that today’s Japanese culture has been heavily influenced by Western culture; American ideas have especially shown up more and more often in animes. But as history shows, when Western thought meets that of the Eastern world, some very fruitful ideas often happen to emerge. Anime, though not successful in all cases, has a tendency of showing a very good symbiosis between the two.
The supernatural is far more evident today in Japanese works than it was in Genji. But considering the visual medium of television, it would only naturally attract more viewers than closer to reality stories. A couple of exceptions to this trend are Rurouni Kenshin, a very popular and well-made fighting anime, and Rune Soldier, a somewhat comedic but quite action-rich show. Some people prefer these more realistic types of animes, but most anime shares many of the same storytelling characteristics.
The greatest theme of Japanese literature, reflected often in anime, is the struggle between good and evil within a person. It is rare that a character is deemed completely one or the other in Japanese lore. In the popular and well-made Trigun, for example, viewers come to see everyday people trying to understand the awesome powers of the mysterious gunslinger Vash the Stampede. He appears to those who meet him as a very congenial, rather clueless fellow, incredibly kind and very averse to killing. Most people do not believe he can be such a mythical figure when they meet him, until they learn of his true identity and come to fear him.
Legend has it that Vash destroyed a great city with one blast, and it is true, though it was completely by accident as his power got away from him. Such legends are a major part of setting up an anime’s universe. Viewers become sympathetic for Vash, who shows that he is a very kind being who just can’t seem to fit in with anybody because of how powerful he is.
Despite his powers, however, we see that he is as human as anyone. In the end, Vash must kill his own brother Knives, who finds human beings weak and worthless. He does not wish to kill his brother, but he does only to save the humans for which he has come to care about greatly. Besides, he was cared for by humans for a long time until Knives set off Vash’s power that destroyed the city of July that made Vash infamous to human kind. All Vash is truly interested is peace, as that was why the colonists had originally come to this world to do. Because of Knives and his feelings of superiority, sabotaged the mission and what human survived have been living in total chaos much like the Old Wild West.
Vash has a deadly aim with his handgun and can dodge any bullet. However, many common folk learn that he is indeed a good person who at times has fond that his awesome super-human powers, as is he not completely human, go out of control. Vash wanders around the extraterrestrial desert world on which the anime takes place, trying to find a place to fit in, but he never really seems to be able to stay in place for too long. He just wanders, just like a gunslinger of the Wild West. Trigun is clearly an adaptation of the American West, yet it is a story that is very much Japanese.
What anime and Tale of Genji have in common are what make Japanese literature unique. Those that take the time to understand them find that the stories are more deeply involved and character-oriented than much of Western literature. Also, Japanese literature and anime alike very rarely revolve around a single character. As Jane Hansall writes in her scholarly article “The Anime Revelation.” in the August 2004 School Library Journal, most Japanese stories deal with multiple characters than develop through the course of events and through their interactions with the other characters.
A great deal of anime consists of epic series, much like the Tale of Genji. Also, like Genji, some anime series even have spin-offs that follow the future generations in their own universes. Many Japanese animes understandably do not come close to the standards of Genji and its great attention to detail; though these details of character development and environment are integral to the majority of animes.
It is hard to say that Western literature is ever as involved on a personal level as Japanese literature is. Western literature, as well as the Chinese literature that Japan adopted in its early years, often chronicles the heroes and paints them as models to strive for and through them teach cultural and moral values. Japanese literature has more of a down-to-earth approach. Its stories deal with their readers in a much more personal way, by offering characters that we can all relate with and not only learn from; we can also learn along with them. Anime is a continuation of Japan’s innovative approach to literature. In many cases, it is a great symbiosis of East and West. Unlike cartoons made in the West, anime is closer to the heart and deal with some profound themes of human nature, just like the Tale of Genji.