Most historians believe that literature is our best way of finding out about the lifestyles in ancient Heian/Fujiwara Japan. Most Heian authors were women court ladies. Murasaki Shikibu (978-1016 A.D.) was such a woman, and she wrote Japan's greatest fictional work of the Japanese classical period, “The Tale of the Genji.” Critics have called Genji the worlds first great novel. Written in 1000 AD, it has 54 chapters and is well over 1,000 pages in length. The story is twice as long as Leo Tolstoy's “War and Peace.” “Tale of the Genji” was an immediate hit in the Heian court.
Lacking formal education, Murasaki wrote in phonetic script. Her story focused on the life and the loves of the sensitive Shining Prince Genji. Prince Genji is the emperor's favorite son, but he is banned from succeeding him on the throne. Unfortunately for Prince Genji, his mother died when he is just an infant. The story is written in a series of episodes, and it is the author who suggests that Genji goes through a long succession of women in search of the one woman who is the embodiment of his dead mother. His first affair is with his father's new wife. Eventually, Prince Genji finds his ultimate wife, but sadly she dies. Soon after, Genji is treated by the royal court with great favor. Again, he marries, only to have his wife produce a son by another man. Shortly afterward, Genji enters the priesthood. From that point on it continues by following his supposedly illicit son in his love affairs. In all, the book spans a period of 75 years.
In the twelfth century Prince Genji was depicted in scroll paintings that can be seen in both the Tokugawa art museum in Nagoya, and in the Goto art museum in Tokyo. Over the centuries there have been numerous adaptations of Tale of the Genji. There have been Genji TV shows, Kabuki and Noh plays, novels, and films. Today, it is such a vital component of Japanese culture that every modern Japanese student has at least read some of the passages.
The Noh drama is the most significant achievement in Japanese performing arts. The founders of Noh drama are the actor Kan'ami (1333-84 A.D.) and his producer son Zeami (1363-1443 A.D.). Zeami was a theatrical genius and he wrote over 90 Noh plays. Largely, the Noh plays deal with the supernatural, ghosts and demons, and angels. Plot development is not that important, instead the plays attempt to intensify a single emotion. Over 2,000 Noh plays have been developed.
By 1600 A.D., many of the city dwellers in Japan had become bored with the Noh plays and they wanted something racier. At the time, two new theatrical styles emerged. They were called Kabuki and Bunraku. Bunraku features almost life sized puppets that are manipulated by three masked operators. Bunraku plays are about passion and duty, and they almost all end with a double suicide. Kabuki plays utilized amazing costumes, and mask-like makeup. Also, Kabuki plays have revolving stages, colorful scenery, and trap doors. Both drums and flutes are used to heighten tensions. Bunraku and Kabuki plays are still popular in Japan.