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The Tale of Genji: Muromachi Genji Kocho-no-Maki 室町源氏胡蝶巻, 1871


These are rare—aesthetically stunning—Meiji-period woodblock print illustrated bound-pocket books (or fukuro toji 袋綴じ) of The Tale of Genji: Muromachi Genji Kocho-no-Maki (Volume 22), drawn by the master of ukiyo-e (浮世絵) , Utagawa Kunisada 歌川国貞 (1823–1880), and rescripted by the late Edo period master of Gesaku (戯作), Ryūtei Tanehiko 柳亭種彦 (1783–1842).


Gesaku: Written for Fun


Gesaku, literally means “written for fun”, and is a playful, slapstick, mocking, and exaggerated writing style, aiming to appeal to the merchant and working classes of Edo during the early Meiji Period (1868–1912).  Note that the books were written in syllabic kana scripts, which would have been easier to discern for less-educated readers.  Gesaku writers did not strive for refinement nor sophistication in the formal literary senses, but perhaps for “foul” perfection, capitalizing on fun, melodramatic sensations, as they survived largely dependent on the sales of books. 


Utagawa school (歌川派): Utagawa Kunisada 歌川国貞


The Utagawa school was one of the main schools of ukiyo-e, founded by Utagawa Toyoharu 歌川豊春 who adopted the Western art style of deep perspective.  Today, more than half of all surviving ukiyo-e prints are from the Utagawa school.  Kunisada was Toyoharu’s student, and at the end of the Edo period (1603–1867), Kunisada became a master, one of the best three representatives of the Japanese color woodcut in Edo (and the other two being Hiroshige 歌川広重 and Kuniyoshi 歌川国芳).  Kunisada has been known for his dramatic portraits of women and Kabuki (歌舞伎) actors, as seen in the covers of these dual-paneled pocket books of Muromachi Genji Kocho-no-Maki.   


The covers feature multiple rectilinear images of Genji crests or Genji-mons (源氏紋), and these emblems are symbolic of butterflies or Kochô in Japanese, alluding to the female butterfly in this chapter.  The butterfly, possessed by the spirit of a warrior, was born in spring and, thus, missed the beautiful plum blossoms blooming in late winter in Mount Yoshino (吉野山).  The butterfly wished to fly among the plum blossoms, and it felt so sad about missing them.  When the butterfly saw a monk, it asked him to comfort its sadness by reciting a sutra. 


These dual-paneled pocket books form one continuous illustration, and their conditions are fine, no loose pages (20 pages in each book), particularly in consideration of the thin paper used in bound pocket books during the period. 


They are of small size, or kobon (小本), about 18 x 12 cm. 


I find one copy at the National Library of Japan:


Click on this link for another book we carry related to The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji: A Visual Companion | Phoenix Books

The Tale of Genji: Muromachi Genji Kocho-no-Maki 室町源氏胡蝶巻, 1871

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