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Hikaru Genji, son of Japan's Kiritsubo Emperor, is a brilliant and gifted young man stifled by the conventions of Heian court life, which offers no real outlet for his talent and energy except the arts and illicit love affairs. He is also haunted by memories of his mother, Lady Kiritsubo, who died when he was very young. He falls in love with his father's consort, Fujitsubo, but his own wife, Lady Aoi, and another lover, Lady Rokujo, will not give him up. The battle for sole possession of his heart is at the core of this film; despite being fought with courtly grace, it's a vicious and ultimately fatal contest, observed by the child Murasaki Shikibu, an orphan in Genji's care who will later become one of his loves.
Facetiously advertised as a "faithful adaptation" of Murasaki Shikibu's 11th-century novel, ToG was commissioned to mark the centenary of the Asahi Shinbun newspaper and the minor anniversaries for some of its affiliates. It unsurprisingly ditches most of the 1,000-page original, concentrating on a love triangle that formed just chapters 4-10 out of a total of 54. Though highly compromised by a recognizably modern script featuring several anachronisms of manner and etiquette, it is nevertheless a brave representation of the spirit of the original, and it is as stylistically rich as The Sensualist. Sometimes, however, its attempt to be faithful can backfire-most notably in the confusingly "real" predominance of black hair, demonstrating all too well why so many anime prefer to differentiate characters with brighter colors and styles. Director Sugii takes enormous risks with pacing, composition, and narrative flow; he utilizes early computer graphics and live-action footage of flames and cherry blossoms. Many scenes are composed of static shots, and the exquisite delicacy of the imagery is given plenty of time to sink in-this film is slow. Heavy with the beauty and mood of a vanished age, the hothouse emotions of the court reflect Genji's own emotional turmoil, somewhat ill-served by a translation and U.S. release that plays up the original's classical credentials but shies from offering any notes on the surviving poetic allusions. However, the true value of ToG does not lie in its relation to the original book at all but in its position as one of the small number of available anime that demonstrate the true diversity of the medium. Composer Hosono was one-third of the Yellow Magic Orchestra with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi. An erotic pastiche, "Bareskin Gen-chan," appeared as one of the stories in the historical porn series Classical Sex-Zone (1988).