Creating Comics: Sean Michael Wilson on adapting the world’s oldest known novel, The Tale of Genji, into manga

American publisher Tuttle Publishing recently released a manga adaptation of The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, the world’s oldest known novel, adapted by Sean Michael Wilson and Inko Ai Takita, and Sean was recently interviewed about this challenging project.

Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikibu (Tuttle Publishing 2022)  - adapted by Sean Michael Wilson and Inko Ai Takita

The Tale of Genji centres on the life and loves of Prince Hikaru Genji, a son born to an Emperor of Japan during the Heian Period, recounting his adventures in life, love, and power within the halls of the Chrysanthemum Royal Court.

Handsome, romantic, and talented in the art of seduction, Prince Genji skillfully navigates the court and all its intrigues, always in search of love, and often finding it. His story is the oldest and most famous tale of romance in the annals of Japanese literature and, as a representation of passion and romance, remains beyond compare.

Raised within the Royal Family, Genji has an affair with Fujitsubo, the young wife of the Emperor, followed by numerous affairs with other court ladies.

Lady Murasaki Shikibu wrote this story some 500 years before Shakespeare put pen to paper. It’s acknowledged to be the world’s very first novel, and English-speaking readers can now experience the story in manga style for the first time.

Superbly illustrated and retold, this visual take on Japan’s most important classic offers an intimate look at the social mores and intrigues in the Heian-era court of medieval Japan, and Prince Genji’s representation as the ideal male courtier.

Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikibu (Tuttle Publishing 2022)  - adapted by Sean Michael Wilson and Inko Ai Takita

Sean reveals the project came about because he was given a choice to do a book about Miyamoto Musashi or the Tale of Genji when he was discussing it with Tuttle.

“Since I’ve already done two books about Musashi, I wanted to try this very different type of book instead,” he explains. The Tale of Genji is about court politics and romance and gender relations rather than about samurai and bushido philosophy. So, basically, it was interesting to try a new type of thing for me.

“Most of my books are about samurai or bushido, or about philosophical aspects of Japan,” he also notes, “so this book is a bit different in that it’s focused on court politics and romance and gender relations of that time. No doubt some readers will therefore consider this to be a book which appeals to female readers more than male readers.

“But I don’t think in those kinds of terms,” he adds. “Surely that kind of artificial separation between male/female interests, between masculine/feminine behavior and attitudes, is the kind of thing we’re trying to overcome in a more equal society. So I see no reason why our Genji book should not also be of interest to male readers, and why my books about Musashi and samurai should not also be interesting to female readers.”

Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikibu (Tuttle Publishing 2022)  - adapted by Sean Michael Wilson and Inko Ai Takita

The original book ran to more than 1000 pages and quoted 795 poems. This manga version is about 177 pages and only includes some of the 795 poems, but nevertheless, successfully covers elements of the original such as Heian court culture, love and lust, friendship, gender roles an power.

“This is the difficult aspect of doing these kinds of adaptations,” Sean says of condensing the work. “Sometimes the original book is quite small so we can expand it in our visual version. But most of the time it’s a long book and we need to summarise it into something smaller, often much smaller.

“That presents specific challenges to me. And in this case I emphasise myself as the writer because first of all it is the writer’s responsibility to do that, to choose what to put in and what to take out, and then to put it together into a coherent form in the shorter version. Though, of course, the overall process is a collaboration between myself and the artist.”

“This is the first time the classic story has been available in an English language manga edition,” Sean also notes. “Although actually there has been at least one manga version of it published in Japan in Japanese. So it’s good that we’ve brought out this version to be widely available in the USA and UK. These new versions help such classic tales to remain in people’s minds rather than be forgotten. It helps a new generation come to this kind of classic book. I also hope people will appreciate how beautiful Ai has made the pages.”

Covering a wide range of topics relating to creating comics, you can read the interview in full here on the Tuttle Publishing web site.

Sean Michael Wilson

Sean Michael Wilson is an award-winning writer from Scotland, who currently lives in Japan. He is the author of over 30 books, the editor of the critically acclaimed collection AX:alternative manga (Publishers Weekly‘s “Best ten books of 2010” and nominated for a Harvey award).

As an author, he has published many manga version of Japanese classics, including The Garden, Manga Yokai Stories, The Book of Five Rings, the International Manga Award-winning Secrets of the Ninja, The 47 Ronin and Cold Mountain, the latter the winner of the China Comic and Animation Competition 2015 “Best Overseas Comic” award.

In 2016, his book The Faceless Ghost was nominated for a prestigious Eisner Book Award and received a medal at the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Secrets of the Ninja, won a International Manga Award in 2017, given by the Japanese government. In February 2021, Wilson was awarded the Scottish Samurai Award from the Order of the Scottish Samurai – a group that celebrates connections between Scotland and Japan – for his contributions as an author.

Inko Ai Takita was born in Kyoto, Japan. She grew up with manga comics, both reading and drawing them. After graduating from Kyoto Zokei University of Art & Design, she moved to England and studied at Central St. Martin’s College of Art & Design. She now lives in the UK where she delivers manga workshops in schools, galleries, museums, and libraries. She has worked as a culture and language ambassador for London University School of Oriental and African Studies. She is the award-winning illustrator of several books, including Manga Yokai Stories, Portrait of Violence, and Tam O’Shanter.

Lady Murasaki Shikibu, born in 978, was a member of the famed Fujiwara clan – one of the most influential families of the Heian period. Her literary ability quickly won her a place in the entourage of the Empress Akiko, where her talents as a female literary master were highly valued. After the death of her husband, Lady Murasaki immersed herself in Buddhist philosophy and the religion’s influences permeate her writings.

The Tale of Genji is available here from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link) | ISBN 978-4805316566

Covering a wide range of topics relating to creating comics, you can read Sean’s interview in full here on the Tuttle Publishing web site

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