Fanfiction writers and fan artists have been maligned since the start of the internet, hunted by zealous copyright holders and ridiculed as derivative by academics. Well, no longer because fanfiction along with other fan creations like paintings, clothing and even trading cards have officially entered the hallowed halls of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the new exhibit The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated.
An epic tale of romance and Japanese courtly intrigue studied by scholars all over the world, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu was written around 1000 A.D. and became an immediate sensation. People were so taken with it, some even said Murakami received divine guidance.
The exhibit brings together more than 120 relics from 32 collections in Japan and the U.S. inspired by the book — essentially an archive of one of the first fandoms to ever exist, whose fans continue to create fanworks of the book over 1,000 years later.
“Women were obsessed with the tale — they debated the strengths and faults of the characters that Murasaki Shikibu brought to life,” says guest curator Melissa McCormick, professor of Japanese art and culture at Harvard University. “The tale was enjoyed for its melodrama, humor and spine-tingling episodes of ghosts and spirit possession.”
Spanning 54 chapters with a cast of 500 characters, The Tale of Genji chronicles the life and loves of the “radiant prince” Genji of the Heian imperial court “and the numerous female characters who more often than not upstaged him,” in McCormick’s words.
Most of the works on display reflect the wealth of patrons who commissioned magnificent pieces inspired by the book, from panoramic screens to elaborately embroidered kimonos and even playing cards painted with characters.
Every one of these items can rightly be considered fanworks, defined as “[taking] something extant and [turning] it into something with a new purpose, sensibility or mode of expression,” according to the Organization for Transformative Works, a nonprofit preservation group for fan history and culture. But the essence of fandom is that it’s created freely out of love of the story, by a community that’s largely female and takes the work as a starting-off point to create new stories.
That’s what you’ll find along two Medieval-era scrolls just after the main exhibit hall. You can’t miss them — one is bordered with shimmery blue paper, with calligraphy and artwork by amateur writers. These women gave names and stories to minor characters, marginalized Genji and even took a character who was dead in the story and had them meet the other characters. “This little format was one in which you could really play around with Genji,” she says.
Though the scrolls’ authors were originally anonymous, some have been identified and labeled in panels right next to each other, as if the work was created by a circle of women like some fanfictions are today. “These works, which are usually anonymous, show women were engaged in the tale — and as people say, ‘Anonymous was a woman.’”
Just as Shakespeare’s stories live on through modern adaptations like the Public Theater’s musical version of Twelfth Night in Central Park last summer, the exhibit explores the continuing relevance of Murakami’s story. The final gallery showcases the lush character studies of Yamato Waki, who created a manga (Japanese comic book) of the story that was just released online in English this year under the title The Tale of Genji: Dreams at Dawn.
So go ahead, write that story or draw that image inspired by something you love. At worst, you’ll hone your talent — or it just might make you rich. While the Twilight-inspired series 50 Shades of Grey may never end up inside The Met, author E.L. James isn’t exactly complaining.
The Tale of Genji is open March 5-June 16, 2019 at The Met, 1000 Fifth Ave.