GO ‘Unrivaled’: A Giddy Look at Literary Geniuses in the Heian Court

If you’ve studied Japanese history or literature, the names Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部) and Sei Shōnagon (清少納言) will be familiar and Michinaga will suggest dangerous court intrigue. Rosie Narasaki’s 90-minute intermission less play, “Unrivaled” wraps up the lore of these literary legends into an easily understood and giddily funny story about friends, frenemies and king-making.

The narrator for all this is Empress Teishi (Cindy Nguyen), a giddily joyful, gossipy gal who explains in asides the history of the Heian Court of the times. She has raised her own social position by acquiring the witty Sei Shōnagon (Chelsea Yakura-Kurtz) as a lady-in-waiting. This Shōnagon is a snarky, social butterfly and Teishi’s BFF who was once involved with Michinaga (David Huynh), but out of loyalty to Teishi, severed her ties. Huyh’s Michinaga is sly, sexy and dangerous. He’s maneuvering to become the power behind the emperor and as part of the Fujiwara family, this involved marrying daughters into the imperial line at a time when men could have more than one wife and many concubines.

Now a new writer has the Heian aristocracy buzzing: Murasaki Shikibu (Katie Kitani). She has already started writing what will be her masterpiece, “The Tale of Genji.” Teishi is eager to have Murasaki join her ladies-in-waiting stable to make it the most exciting literary salon. Kitani’s Murasaki is an introvert and often uncomfortable in social situations. She joins Teishi’s court, welcoming the empress’ patronage, but in every trio of friends, there’s one slightly on the outside and that is Murasaki.

Japanese History

The Heian Period (平安時代) ran from 794 to 1185 and as the name suggests, was a time of relative peace. The capitol during this time was what is now known as Kyoto (京都), but at the time was known as Heian-Kyō (平安京). The previous capitol had been Nara (奈良) during the Nara Period (奈良時代) which was from 710 to 794.

Murasaki Shikibu ( born c. 978, Kyōto, Japan—died c. 1014, Kyōto). She takes her name from her father’s position at the Bureau of Rites. She was a member of the Fujiwara family, but from a lesser branch. She married an older distant cousin, Fujiwara Nobutaka, but he died soon after, leaving her widowed. Murasaki is the name of one of the characters in “The Tale of Genji.”

Sei Shōnagon (清少納言) was born c. 966 and died c. 1025. She was the daughter of poet Kiyohara Motosuke and was a lady-in-waiting for Empress Teishi from 993 to 1000. She is best known for her Makura no Sōshi (枕草子) or “The Pillow Book.”  Her father, Kiyohara no Motosuke (清原 元輔, 908 – June 990) was a scholar and well-known waka poet. The “Sei” () comes from the first character of her father’s surname (which can be read as sei or kiyo). Shōnagon is a government post (lesser councilor of state), but it isn’t clear as to why she is associated with this name. Her father, and neither of her two husbands held that post. It has been suggested that the title might be the post of her third husband, Fujiwara no Nobuyoshi.

Fujiwara Michinaga  (born 966, Kyōto—died Jan. 3, 1028, Kyōto) was the son of the previous head of the Fujiwara family and claimed leadership after the death of his elder brother. Although he never took the title of kampaku (chancellor), he was named great minister of the state in 1017. Four emperors married his daughters. To make a messy family tree, two of those emperors where his nephews and three were her grandsons.

World history

To put this in perspective, during the 10th Century (901-1000), the Christian Nubian kingdom reaches its peak in military power and prosperity in Africa and in 980, the Al-Azhar University is established in Cairo. In the America’s the post-classic Maya period begins. The Toltecs rise in Mexico. Lions become extinct in Europe. Vikings are in Brittany. In 927, the Kingdom of England becomes a unified state under  Æthelstan of Wessex (r. 924–939). The Norman conquest of England in 1066 led the Duke of Normandy becoming William the Conqueror and a change of the royal residence from Winchester to Westminster.

In Asia, the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was founded. The Bei (Northern) Song was founded Zhao Kuangyin, a military general of the Zhou dynasty.  The Chinese invent fire arrows and three of the Four Great Books of Song were published. These are Chinese encyclopedias.

The Play

Premiering during Women’s History Month, Narasaki’s play emphasizes that East Asian women weren’t just geisha and whores, they were leaders in literature, not only in their own culture, such as Japan, but in the world. Murasaki’s “Tale of Genji” is considered the world’s first novel. Sei Shōnagon’s “The Pillow Book” is a specific genre of writing, zuihitsu, which today is not unlike some of the social media accounts of lists of likes and dislikes and small scribbles about events. If you’re in Japan, it’s hard to avoid references to Genji. “The Pillow Book” is probably better known to cinephiles as an erotic drama written and directed by a Welsh man, Peter Greenaway, about a Japanese-born model (Vivian Wu), her love (Ewan McGregor) and the twisted relationship between her family and her father’s publisher (Yoshi Oida). I tend to think that Sei Shōnagon would be horrified by the film. This play is more in keeping with a woman’s view of the restrictions of being a woman, something that both hindered and helped Sei Shōnagon and Murasaki as delineated in this play.

Narasaki’s three female characters speak about  “the burden to be female,” and being viewed by men and seen as only in relation to men. The empress holds her position only because of her husband, and needs to bear a male heir. The names Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shōnagon are not personal names. Shikibu and Sei Shōnagon are titles of men; we do not know either woman’s given name.

There are some things within the script that are jarring. The mention of raccoons and hummingbirds will seem familiar enough to US audiences, but raccoons are not native to Japan and neither are hummingbirds.  Hummingbirds are only native to the Americas. With raccoons, however, Narasaki may mean the tanuki, or raccoon dog. In Japan, the raccoon dog is known as a shape-shifting trickster.

Fujiwara kanon.

In Japanese, murasaki means a shade of purple and purple typically symbolizes last love (while red is a color associated with girls and short-term love). The fuji in Fujiwara means wisteria and you’ll see the kamon (family crest) of the Fujiwara family which is a stylized flowering wisteria.

For those unfamiliar with Japanese culture, “Unrivaled” is a short and entertaining introduction to the morals and literary traditions of Heian Japan. For those familiar with Japanese culture, the play takes famous characters off of the written pages and gives them a fantastically fun representation. In both cases, it reminds us that obstacles can sometimes be opportunities, that women should not be discounted from history and that East Asian women have a place in world literary history.

“Unrivaled” continues at Boston Court in Pasadena, California until 23 April 2023. For tickets or more information, visit BostonCourtPasadena.org.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.