By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Charlotte and Emily Brontë—writers many people are likely to recognize. Their classic works have been taught in classrooms around the country for generations.
But there’s one classic—while ubiquitous in Japanese schools—that’s not as widely taught in the United States, yet it predates them all. Written in the early 11th Century (that’s more than 500 years before Shakespeare was even born) by Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman in the Japanese imperial court, “The Tale of Genji” is widely considered to be the world’s first novel. From film and theater performances, to anime and opera, the story—which chronicles the life of Hikaru Genji, the son of an ancient Japanese emperor, and describes aristocratic life of the time—has been adapted in various forms.
In its latest adaptation, this classic Japanese story is being told through a popular Japanese medium: manga. While “Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji” is not the first time the novel has been adapted into manga, this version, adapted by Sean Michael Wilson and illustrated by Inko Ai Takita, is the first time the story has been originally adapted in English. The book was released June 4.
A democratic collaboration of equals
Adapting the novel took about a year. Wilson would write the script for a few chapters, send them to an editor, and once he made the changes needed, he would send the chapters to Takita to illustrate. A script, Wilson explained, is a breakdown of the story, with detailed descriptions of how each panel should look—for example, whether it should be a wide shot of a scene or close up of a character. While he waited for Takita’s illustrations, Wilson would write the next few chapters so they would be ready for her once she completed the previous batch. There would be some more back and forth between the writer and illustrator before things were finalized.
Wilson likened the relationship between the writer and illustrator on a graphic novel to the one among a director, screenwriter, and actor on a film set. Except that when he works with an illustrator, it’s more of a collaboration of equals and more democratic, whereas on a film set, the director has the final say in the story. Wilson described himself as a “medium flexible” writer, leaving room for the illustrator to do things in 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 one thing he wants readers to appreciate is the beauty of Takita’s artwork, calling “Genji” his most visually beautiful book on Japan. The book’s structure as a story does not follow the typical beginning-middle-end structure of modern-day storytelling. Instead, it’s more of a slice-of-life tale, following Genji’s life over 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” in a way that still had key parts of the story, such as the romance, gender relations, and court politics.
“How can we take these thousand pages to much less?” he said, speaking with Northwest Asian Weekly from Japan, where he has lived for more than 10 years. Wilson and Takita’s adaptation comes in at just fewer than 200 pages.
“It’s quite a task to take on.”
In taking on the daunting challenge of adapting a story that is so well known in Japan, Wilson knows not everyone will be happy with his version—and he expects some criticism. This being said, adapting “Genji” into manga is a way to continue telling the classic tale in a modern way and making it more accessible to a wider audience.
A classic tale with modern-day issues
Wilson grew up on comic books and graphic novels—discovering them at 12, growing up in Scotland. He wrote his own comic books with his friends at the time and they dreamed of continuing with it when they grew up.
“I was the only one foolish enough to [follow through],” Wilson said with a laugh.
Wilson’s first book was published in December 2003 and he now has more than 40 books to his name. While some of his books focus on Japan and China (less than half), Wilson also likes to write about history and touch on culture, sociology, and politics.
“I can learn (about different things) when I’m doing it,” he said.
Wilson’s book topics range from the 47 Ronin (the legendary true story of a group of samurai in 1702, who avenge their late master’s death) to the Minamata disaster of the 1950s that poisoned the water of the city of the same name.
“The comic books we do are quite well researched,” Wilson said. For his non-fiction work, this research includes meeting with primary sources from the era and/or event (when possible), as well as reading original texts and other source materials. He will also work with an expert on the topic in question to fact check his work to ensure accuracy.
With “Genji,” Wilson knew of the story before starting on the project, but he hadn’t read it until he took on the task. He stayed away from other adaptations, not wanting them to influence 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, which he said was interesting to see, adding that the issues in the story are ones society still deals with today, which is what makes “Genji” relevant still, to this day.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.