Old-Fashioned Lover Boy A thousand-year-old fictional prince is an unlikely modern hero. So why is Japan crazy about Genji?

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He danced gracefully, powdered his face, wrote delicate poetry and wore layer upon layer of color-coordinated robes. He mixed his own scent, which women recognized when he entered a room. Genji, the son of an Emperor, had the stuff that made women-and even men -swoon in Japan's 10th century Heian era. In Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji), the first psychological novel ever written, he's known as the "shining" prince.

Today, 1,000 years after author Murasaki Shikibu created him, Genji is a reigning studmuffin in the land of his birth. A big-budget cinematic version of The Tale of Genji opened last month in Tokyo, aptly titled Genji-A Thousand-Year Love. Genji's amorous exploits are followed in more than a dozen long-running series of manga, or book-length cartoons. A 10-volume translation into modern Japanese by best-selling Buddhist nun Jakucho Setouchi, which was completed in 1998, sold more than 2 million copies, and it was just one among many produced over the past 30 years. (The original, written in hentai gana Japanese, is as hard to understand for today's readers as Beowulf is for English readers.) In 2000, the Japanese government honored the shining prince by putting a scene from the novel on its newly launched 2,000-yen banknote.

Fascination with The Tale of Genji as a literary work has never dimmed in Japan, and it remains pretty bright in the West as well. A two-volume 1,200-page English translation by retired Japanese language professor Royall Tyler was released last October, following pioneering renditions by Arthur Waley in 1935 and Edward

G. Seidensticker in 1976. But Genji the man -moon-faced, prone to ennui-is half a millennium older than Hamlet and is Don Quixote's senior by six centuries. What's his enduring appeal?

Basically, his Japaneseness. After years of economic stupor, many Japanese are questioning their national mission and are looking to the shining prince as one of the oldest paragons of Japanese virtue. These days, Japanese things are in: attendance at Kabuki plays is up, and one of the big pop acts is a pair of brothers who jam on traditional Japanese shamisen. The current Genji craze traces itself to manga artist Waki Yamato, who was approached by a women's magazine editor in 1979 asking for a new feature. Yamato suggested Genji. "Back then, even the modern translations were too difficult for young people to really enjoy," she recalls. "I'd always loved the story and thought it a pity to keep it locked up in a cage in the ivory tower." The result was the unabashedly romantic Asaki Yumemishi (Shallow Dreams), which ran monthly for more than 10 years and sold 15 million copies when it came out in a paperback collection. That cartoon was adapted for the stage and also made into a television movie.

Genji websites offer games and fortune telling, most of them patronized by young women who would never dream of cracking the actual text. "I wouldn't want to read the modern translations because they might destroy the beautiful images in my head," says 20-year-old Yukiko Abe, a member of the Genji Club at Tokyo's Seisen University. Says Masuharu Hasegawa, Japanese literature professor at the university: "They're more interested in the fantastic appeal, the court life, ghosts and spirits."

One of the enduring charms of Heian-era literature is its description of sexual licentiousness, and Genji was the court's greatest lover. Never would he forget to send a "next-morning letter" to the previous night's conquest. Today's Japanese women, lucky to get a follow-up e-mail, can hardly resist a man of such grace, delicacy and almost feminine concern. (In fact, Genji in A Thousand-Year Love is played by a woman, Yuki Amami, a stage actress known for taking on male roles.) But Japan's men aren't being neglected. Manga artist Tatsuya Egawa has taken Murasaki's tale and rendered it in full, graphic detail, giving the shining prince some brand-new grunts and groans. That might guarantee an ancient tale another 1,000 years of life.