Over the course of fifty-four chapters, the novel traces the story of Hikaru (Shining) Genji, and describes refined aristocratic life in the capital city of Heian (now Kyoto). Son of the emperor and an imperial concubine, Prince Genji was the ideal Heian-period man: handsome, politically adept, kind to the many women in his life, and artistically accomplished. The Tale recounts his ascendancy and travails at court, his many love affairs, and the lives of his children after his death. Murasaki provides valuable insights into the artistic pursuits of Heian-period aristocrats through evocative descriptions of court etiquette, dress, poetry contests, concerts, annual celebrations, and religious events. Life's fleeting beauty and the workings of karmic retribution are themes that pervade the novel, which has inspired countless artists throughout Japan's long history.
While it is likely that painted illustrations of pivotal scenes from each chapter were produced soon after Murasaki completed the work, the earliest examples date to a century later. Artists at court-possibly women-refined the pictorial device of fukinuki yatai, or "blown-away roofs," allowing viewers to peer into the private apartments of the novel's protagonists. The artists also created a sumptuous style using rich, opaque colors. The earliest illustrations discreetly show stylized faces, but by the thirteenth century artists rendered "likeness pictures," giving each character individualized features. From the fifteenth century, artists associated with the Tosa school specialized in Genji illustrations, while those from other schools also featured Genji themes. So abidingly popular was this classical tale that Genji motifs appear on art produced in every conceivable medium, including lacquerware, ceramics, and textiles.