Genji—A Thousand-Year Love

On October 26, 2001, I attended the world premiere of Toei’s new movie “Genji—A Thousand Year Love”, or, in Japanese, “Sennen no Koi—Hikaru Genji Monogatari” (home page). The premiere took place at the historic El Capitan theater in the middle of Hollywood. Yoshinaga Sayuri, who played Murasaki Shikibu in the movie, graced the premiere with her presence, as did numerous other celebrities. Toei made this film as a celebration of its 50th anniversary.

If Toei’s intent was to showcase its movie-making prowess, it succeeded, but not in the way they wanted to. The movie is a sterling demonstration of just how completely and stubbornly Japanese cinema is stuck in the past, a startlingly comprehensive catalog of every poor cliche of Japan filmmaking since the war, covering every conceivable aspect of cinema—acting, scriptwriting, photography, and special effects.

Perhaps the problems started with the selection as screenwriter of the geriatric Hayasaka Akira, who penned a series of forgettable scripts over the last several decades, most notably “Seishun no Mon” and its sequel. The first and only notable aspect of this particular script is the way, in the words of the program, that it “entwines the real life of Lady Murasaki Shikibu…with the action and characters of the novel itself.” That concept itself seems workable, if not very original, The execution, though, is wholly uninspired, as if Hayasaka was writing the script on automatic pilot.

The idea is that Shikibu is called back to the court in Kyoto to train a nobleman’s young daughter in the arts necessary for her to be chosen by the Emperor as a member of his harem, and eventually, it is hoped, to mother for him a son who would be in line for the throne. During the training Shikibu tells the young woman, Shoshi, about the novel she is writing. We then experience the story of the Tale of Genji itself through the inevitable flashback mechanism. During her talks with Shikibu, Shoshi makes a series of vapid comments about Genji and the story, each giving the movie makers the chance for additional shallow observations on the moral of the Genji story. According to the movie notes, when Genji’s pathological philandering finally drives Shoshi to ask “What is it that men want?”, or something along those lines, Shikibu “pointed the way to her enlightenment by giving her a message that shook her to her soul”. As far as I can tell, that earth-shattering revelation was something along the lines of men wanting variety. Amazingly, the film leaves us with something that is decisively less than the sum of its parts—either the Tale of Genji itself, or the story of Murasaki Shikibu.

The viewer is left slack-jawed by the selection of the Takarazuka actress Yuki Amami to play the role of Genji. For those acquainted with Takarazuka, it is an all-female musical group, where even male roles are played by the girls. The Japanese preoccupation with this idea of girls playing boys, or its converse, the onnagata males playing female roles in kabuki plays, is a complete riddle to the average foreigner. There must be something profound here related to the Japanese conception of male and female and their respective roles in life. In any case, I cannot see any meaningful reason in this film to cast a woman as the dashing Genji character. It would seem that he should be the personification of masculine charm, so why is he being played by a woman who actually has plucked eyebrows and wears lipstick?

Or perhaps, muses the Western viewer, this is all part of a huge put-on, a sly parody! That explains it! The caricaturized delivery of lines, the absurd shot composition, the bizarre casting decisions, the weird Seiko interludes—Toei must just be making huge fun of itself, of the half-century of formulaic period dramas it has produced. Alas, this theory greatly overestimates the Japanese sense of humor. Every indication is that the onagenarian executives at Toei intended to, and thought that they had, created a new landmark in Japanese historical drama filmography.

I mentioned the photography. I am no student of Japanese film, but the images here are instantly recognizable as being in the mid-20th century style of five decades ago. We see the wide screen filled with intensely bright, contrasting colors, resembling paint-by-numbers pictures painted with a palette that included far too many pure, piercing greens, reds, and blues, whether it be the shots of Genji’s fabulous Pavilion of the Four Seasons, the evening sky over the buildings of the royal court, or the provincial home by the ocean where Murasaki lived away from the capital. These images repeat endlessly, without connection, overly rich festivals of color appearing one after the other, without transition. The overall effect is simply numbing.

One of the most puzzling things about this film is the role of Seiko Matsuda, the washed-up idol singer from the 80’s. Looking quite strung out on speed, Seiko appears in a handful of singing and dancing interludes completely detached from the flow of the movie. The songs are fine if you like Seiko and she can still belt out a tune, but the poor girl looks as if she never passed lip-synching 101. More basically, it’s a complete mystery what Toei was trying to accomplish with her appearances. Perhaps the octagenarians planning the project thought she would appeal to the “younger” generation.

The Genji website says the the budget for the film was 1.4 billion yen, or about $12 million at current exchange rates. Of course, the Japanese stars work for far less money than the eight digits per picture that their top American counterparts get. but still this is a real low-ball affair by American standards. Toei might have been willing to spend more money on their big anniversary movie, but the producer and director probably have been making movies on the cheap for so long they would have had no idea how to use the money anyway. Remember, this is the company whose main claim to fame is the 48-film “Otoko wa Tsurai Yo (It’s Tough Being a Guy)”, the budget for each installment of which was probably more like $5M, if that.

Certainly they did not spend the money on any special effects. The special effects here look like those from a semester project in a high school film class. Let’s see, to create the illusion of flames around Genji in a dream he is having, how about shooting some burning paper, then layering that image over that of Genji half-transparently, resulting in something that looks like a 50’s TV program? Why am I not surprised? Photography was handled by Tatsuo Suzuki, who has handled that chore in a prodigious 57 forgettable films since his debut more than three decades ago.

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