Tale of the Heike, The

Tale of the Heike, The
(Heike Monogatari)
   The Tale of the Heike is an important Japanese narrative that has its origins in the KAMAKURA PERIOD and deals with the turbulent times of the Gempei Wars at the end of the 12th century. Covering the 60-year span from 1131 and 1191, the text tells the story of the struggle between the Heike (or Taira) clan and the Genji (or Minamoto) family for political, economic, and military supremacy over Japan. The stories in the Tale of the Heike have been compared with the legend of King ARTHUR in Europe in terms of their popularity and influence.With the exception of the TALE OF GENJI, The Tale of the Heike is the most admired prose text in Japanese literature. Specifically what is meant by the “Tale of the Heike” is somewhat ambiguous. There were versions of the story composed within a few decades of the end of the Gempei Wars (1185). These seem to have been of three different types: Some were intended to be historical records of events. Some were intended for use in sermons by itinerant preachers. Still others were ballads (called heikyoku or “Taira songs”), sung by blind wandering Buddhist monks called Biwa Hōshi—so called because they accompanied themselves on a biwa or lute. By the early 14th century there were some 100 variants of the story. The text that is generally implied by the title Tale of the Heike is one associated with the reciter Kakuichi (ca. 1300–71), who seems to have compiled the work from the productions of earlier writers, so that it is impossible to tell what precisely is the work of Kakuichi himself.
   The Kakuichi text is divided into 12 numbered chapters, each including a number of episodes bearing individual titles. The main text is followed by an epilogue. There is some scholarly disagreement about the structure of the text. However, looked at as a whole, the text seems to fall into three main divisions. The first section begins with justly famous opening lines called Gion Shōja (the Japanese term for the Jetavana Temple), which set a thematic tone for the rest of the text: The lines are a testament to the transience of mortal life and a reminder that the rich and powerful will all ultimately come to nothing. The teak trees shed their flowers and the animals shed tears at the death of Shakamuni, who in these lines enters Nirvana at the Jetavana Temple. Following this, the text recounts the power and courtly qualities of the Heike, focusing on the ruthless Kiyomori, whose evil reign ends in his fall and death. His son and successor, Shigemori, is virtuous and admirable, a foil to his father, but his death leaves the Heike without a moral center.
   Among the other Heike leaders presented in the text are Koremori, a family man possessed of courtly virtues who is made commander of the Heike forces in the north. Defeated and discouraged, he leaves the battle. Torn between a desire to go home to his family, to renounce the world as a Buddhist recluse, or to accept the realities of war, he ultimately commits suicide. Another Heike military commander, Tadanori, leaves the burning capital of Kyoto and braves enemy lines in order to bring his poetry to the editor Fujiwara Shunzei, who is compiling an anthology of waka (Japanese poems), because he wants to be remembered as a poet, not a warrior. When he is killed in battle, even his enemies mourn the death of Tadanori the poet.
   One of the recurring themes of the Tale is the contrast between the cultured Heike and the somewhat boorish Genji, who, though more impressive warriors than the Heike, are inferior to them culturally. In the second part of the text, the Heike, without their leader Kiyomori, are thrown into disorder. Now the Genji begin to dominate the narrative. The chief figure becomes Yoshinaka—a violent and brutish, yet courageous and proud leader who is ultimately doomed. A more generally sympathetic character is Yoshinaka’s youthful successor, the heroic Yoshitsune (the ultimate Genji victor, Yoshinaka’s more ruthless brother Yoritomo, plays a peripheral role in the story). Under Yoshitsune, the Genji rout the Heike at Ichi-no-tani, and finally destroy them completely in the sea battle at Dan-noura, where not only the Heike warriors but the emperor and Kiyomori’s widow are all killed. One of the well-known episodes in this third section of the text is the death at Ici-no-tani of the young Heike warrior Atsumori, whose story became the source of dramatic treatments in both kabuki and Nō theater. Another is the story of Yokubue (one of many significant women in the text), whose separation from her lover depicts an idea of love as a desire for what cannot be attained, an attitude related to the Buddhist concept of the transience of the physical world and the futility of such desire.
   The ending, or epilogue, to the main text is set far from the battlefield and focuses on Kenrei Mon’in, the mother of the emperor, who has become a cloistered recluse at Ohara, in the mountains north of Kyoto. From here, she prays for the soul of her dead son. In many ways, The Tale of the Heike as a whole can been seen as an offering to appease the spirits of the dead Heike, gone but restless, and the text grants the Heike sympathy in their defeat. Certainly they are in general more sympathetic than the stern warriors of the victorious Genji (with the exception of Yoshitsune). This is not to say that the Taira or Heike are viewed uncritically. The Buddhist compilers of the story recognized the sins of the Heike, and their serious mistakes, including their arrogance, and saw those things as the causes of their downfall. But it did not necessarily follow that the Genji were therefore better. What the authors focus on is the tragic glory of the doomed Heike—the magnificent fall of the heroes and the pity of their suffering.
   Recent scholars have examined The Tale of the Heike as the Japanese national epic. Certainly its focus on the warrior class, its epic scope, and its historical basis are reason to categorize the text as an epic. Its nonheroic episodes that deal with women, children, romance, and natural beauty, seem less typical of epic. The point of view of the text, as most scholars now believe, is the aristocratic point of view of the people of Kyoto, rather than the warrior class itself. The text is, finally, an epic-like text, but a purely Japanese creation unlike anything produced in Western literature.
   ■ Kato, Shuicho. A History of Japanese Literature: From the Man-yōshu to Modern Times. New abridged ed. Translated and Edited by Don Sanderson. Richmond, U.K.: Curzon Press, 1997.
   ■ Keene, Donald. Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century. Vol. 1 of History of Japanese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
   ■ McCullough,Helen C. The Tale of the Heike. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988.
   ■ Miner, Earl, Hiroko Odagiri, and Robert E. Morrell. The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.

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