By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly Newspaper
William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Charlotte and Emily Brontë – writers many people will likely recognize. Her classical works have been taught in classrooms across the country for generations.
But there is one classic that, while ubiquitous in Japanese schools, is not taught as often in the United States, it predates all the others. Written in the early 11th century (that’s more than 500 years before Shakespeare was even born) by Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman at the Japanese imperial court, The Tale of Genji is widely considered the world’s first novel. From film and theater performances to anime and opera, the story chronicling the life of Hikaru Genji, the son of an ancient Japanese emperor and describing the aristocratic life of the time, has been adapted in various forms.
In its latest adaptation, this classic Japanese story is told through a popular Japanese medium: manga. While Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji isn’t the first time the novel has been adapted as a manga, this version, adapted by Sean Michael Wilson and illustrated by Inko Ai Takita, marks the first time the story has originally been in English was adapted. The book came out on June 4th.
A democratic cooperation at eye level
The adaptation of the novel took about a year. Wilson wrote the script for some chapters, sent them to an editor, and once he made the necessary changes, he sent the chapters to Takita for illustration. A screenplay, Wilson explained, is a breakdown of the story with detailed descriptions of what each panel should look like — for example, whether it’s going to be a full shot of a scene or a close-up of a character. While waiting for Takita’s illustrations, Wilson would write the next few chapters to be ready for her as soon as she finished the previous batch. There would still be some back and forth between the author and the illustrator before things were finalized.
Wilson compared the relationship between writer and illustrator on a graphic novel to the relationship between director, screenwriter and actor on a film set. Except that working with an illustrator is more of an eye-to-eye collaboration and more democratic, whereas on a film set the director has the last word in the story. Wilson described himself as a “moderately flexible” writer, leaving room for the illustrator to do things their own way and add their own ideas to the artwork.
“Genji” was the third time Wilson and Takita had worked together, and he said he wanted readers to appreciate the beauty of Takita’s artwork and named “Genji” his most visually beautiful book about Japan. The structure of the book as a story does not follow the typical beginning-middle-end structure of modern storytelling. Instead, it’s more of a life story, following Genji’s life for about 50 years. Wilson said Takita used visual motifs and themes throughout the manga to tie things together.
The 1,000 page challenge
One of the challenges Wilson faced was figuring out how to condense the story into a more manageable length. He felt the responsibility on his shoulders to adapt “Genji” so that it still had important parts of the story, like the romance, gender relations, and court politics.
“How can we reduce those thousand pages to a lot less?” he told Northwest Asian Weekly from Japan, where he has lived for more than 10 years. Wilson and Takita’s adaptation is less than 200 pages.
“It’s quite a task.”
As he takes on the daunting challenge of adapting a story so well-known in Japan, Wilson knows not everyone will be happy with his version – and he expects some criticism. That being said, adapting “Genji” into manga is a way to continue the classic story in a modern way and make it more accessible to a wider audience.
A classic story with modern themes
Wilson grew up reading comics and graphic novels and discovered them when he was 12 growing up in Scotland. He wrote his own comics with his then-boyfriends and they dreamed of continuing when they grew up.
“I was the only one stupid enough to do it [follow through]’ Wilson said, laughing.
Wilson’s first book was published in December 2003 and he now has more than 40 books under his name. While some of his books focus on Japan and China (less than half), Wilson also enjoys writing about history, touching on culture, sociology, and politics.
“I can learn (about different things) by doing it,” he said.
Wilson’s book subjects range from the 47 Ronin (the legendary true story of a band of samurai in 1702 who avenge the death of their late master) to the 1950s Minamata disaster, which poisoned the water of the eponymous city.
“The comics we make are pretty well researched,” Wilson said. For nonfiction work, this research includes meeting primary sources from the time and/or event (when possible), and reading original texts and other source materials. He will also work with an expert on the subject in question to check his work for accuracy.
With Genji, Wilson knew the story before he started the project, but he hadn’t read it until he took on the task. He stayed away from other adaptations and didn’t want them to affect his work.
Instead, he read a few different translations of the story – the original version was written in Japanese of the time, which is very different from modern Japanese. Each version Wilson read highlighted different aspects of the story that he thought were interesting to see, adding that the themes in the story are those that society is still grappling with today, which is what “Genji” did until makes relevant today.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.