Heike Monogatari Essay - Critical Essays

Heike Monogatari


Heike Monogatari

c. 1218-21. Japanese prose epic.

The Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike) is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Japanese literature. A martial epic deeply influenced by Buddhism, it describes the events that led from the end of a long peaceful period to the revolutionary Genpei War, which was waged between the Taira (or Heike) family and the Minamoto (or Genji) clan from 1177 to 1185. The tale concludes with the annihilation of the Heike clan. Scholars believe that Yukinaga was the author of the original text of the Heike Monogatari, called the Shibu kassenjo. Yukinaga reportedly taught the blind monk Shobutsu to recite the tale, and Shobutsu helped write the portions dealing with war. This first version, written in a combination of Japanese and Chinese, is now lost. The Heike Monogatari was chanted by blind musician-monks who accompanied themselves on Japanese lutes. They wandered the country, singing the tale wherever they found people who were interested. The story enthralled its audience and led to well over one hundred variant editions spanning a period of approximately a century and a half. The text considered standard for the last six hundred years was written by Akashi Kakuichi, a blind singer, who finished dictating his version shortly before his death in 1371. Although the Heike Monogatari has been accepted as legitimate history by general readers for centuries, modern scholars realize that the fictional elements of the tale outnumber the factual. For all its romanticism, however, the Heike Monogatari vividly describes how the courtier class gave way to the warrior class. It has also inspired countless other Japanese works based on its characters and incidents.

Plot and Major Characters

The period covered in the Heike Monogatari is ninety years, from 1131 to 1221. The focus, though, is on eighteen years, from when Taira no Kiyomori assumed leadership in 1167 until the destruction of the Heike forces at Dan-no-ura. The Heike Monogatari draws much of its factual material from diaries and temple records. Most of the tale is presented chronologically, although there are generous insertions of myths and legends, often dealing with Buddhist philosophy and practice. Additionally, ninety-seven short poems are included. The first half of the work describes the power and pride of the Taira and includes unsympathetic accounts of Kiyomori's outrageous behavior. Readers have sometimes been disturbed by the central character acting so shamelessly, but the work does not aim to glorify each of its actors. Taira no Shigemori, Kiyomori's son, is much the opposite of his father. He is sound in judgement, practices Confucianism, and is merciful. He represents the traditional rights of the royal family and its courtiers. Some chapters of the Heike Monogatariare mostly devoted to individual characters, including Yoshinaka, a great Genji fighter but poor leader, and Yoshitsune, also a victor at war. The second half of the Heike Monogatari concerns the battles of the Genpei War, climaxing with the abandonment of the capital by the Taira. Initially, battles are described in general terms, but later the narrative personalizes war by describing the specific acts of heroes. The most famous of all the battles depicted is that which was fought at Mikusa. The Heike are barricaded near the ocean in a fort which Genji forces have found impenetrable. One side of the fort is a steep cliff, and the Heike believed it was unnecessary to protect themselves on that side because no one could possibly climb down such a precipitous cliff and attack from it. The Genji, however, accomplish the impossible and descend on horseback. They vanquish the Heike and order those they spare to swim to their boats in the harbor.

Major Themes

The Heike Monogatari mainly concerns itself with the fall of the Heike courtiers and the concurrent rise of a new warrior class in Japan. Differences between aspects of the old and new moralities constitute one of the main themes of the work, and much attention is focused on the warrior code, so central to Japanese culture. Another thematic focus is Buddhist philosophy, especially as it relates to man's vain nature and the uncertainties and transitory nature of life.

Critical Reception

Critics point out that perhaps no other story has ever captured the imagination of the Japanese public as has the Heike Monogatari. It has often been deemed the Japanese equivalent of the Iliad and it appeal has been wide; in addition to English, it has been translated into French, Chinese, Russian, and Czech. Scholars frequently focus on the textual development of the tale. Although the exact chronology of the major revisions and the interaction between oral versions and written texts can never be totally resolved, there is much broad agreement. Most scholars believe the Heike Monogatari began its life as a written text and then was revised for recitation. There is some disagreement over the matter of whether before the modern twelve-scroll version there existed three-scroll and six-scroll versions; most scholars are skeptical of the existence of the three-scroll version, but more accepting of the possibility of the six-scroll text. Through the process of being told over and over by professional storytellers, the work evolved and improved. Its ultimate form, critics agree, is the nearly perfect rendition of Kakuichi, which unites the best of written and oral styles. Scholars also find the Heike a rich source for the study of Japanese history and culture. Kenneth Dean Butler has made a case that the depiction of the Heike as given by the blind singers led to the code of the warrior: “We therefore have the paradox of the Japanese of later ages modeling their actions not on those of the Gempei warriors as they actually were, but rather upon the ideal warrior as conceived by oral singers who formed their heroes by means of formulaic techniques of oral composition.” William E. Naff states that although the Heike Monogatari was “created for a society of warriors it is unflinchingly realistic about both the physical and the moral shortcomings of the warrior's trade. It is almost entirely free of the morbid and obsessive preoccupation with the minutiae of slaughter and mutilation which military tales the world around so often offer as a counterfeit of honesty about their subject.”

Principal Works

The Heike Monogatari (translated by Arthur Sadler in Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan) 1918 and 1921

The Tale of the Heike (translated by Hiroshi Kitagawa and Bruce T. Tsuchida) 1975

The Tale of the Heike (translated by Helen Craig McCullough) 1988


Kenneth Dean Butler (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “The Textual Evolution of the Heike Monogatari” in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 26, No. 5, 1966, pp. 5-51.

[In the following excerpt, Butler examines the authorship and dates of creation of the Shibu text, arguing for its acceptance as the original Heike Monogatari.]


The starting point for all investigations of the authorship of the original Heike monogatari has been the following section of the Tsurezuregusa, a miscellany written by Yoshida Kenkō (1282-1350) about the year 1330.

Section No. 226: During the time...

(The entire section is 10170 words.)

Hasegawa Tadashi (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: “The Early Stages of the Heike Monogatari,” in Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. XXII, No. 1-2, 1967, pp. 65-81.

[In the following essay, Tadashi provides an overview of the Heike Monogatari, examines the significance of the blind lute players who recited it, and traces the development of its written text.]

The culture of the Heian period was the product of a small aristocracy which flourished in the metropolis of Heian or Kyoto, capital of a highly centralized political system. It bloomed in the soil of luxury consumption maintained by the produce of lands which the aristocracy held in every province of the country. But the power structure of this...

(The entire section is 8376 words.)

Kenneth Dean Butler (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: “The Heike Monogatari and the Japanese Warrior Ethic,” in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 29, 1969, pp. 93-108.

[In the following essay, Butler argues that the code of the Japanese warrior as presented in the Heike Monogatari is more a creation of the tellers of the tales than historic fact.]

The Heike monogatari has exerted a strong influence on many aspects of the later development of Japanese society. In the political sphere, it is well-known that the accounts of warrior battles contained in the Heike provided a model for the attitudes and standards of conduct of the warrior class until the nineteenth, and even into...

(The entire section is 6525 words.)

William E. Naff (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “A Tale of the Heike,” in Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 87-95.

[In the following essay, Naff discusses the difficulties in translating the Heike Monogatari and specifically criticizes the efforts of Kitagawa and Tsuchida.]

The Heike Monogatari occupies a seminal position in the Japanese literary tradition. For the greater part of a millenium it has been the model in Japan for treatments of the human and religious implications of war. Among epics and military tales, the Heike Monogatari is notable for its posture toward war, the occasions of war and the roles of the contending sides in war. It was developed by...

(The entire section is 4046 words.)

Helen Craig McCullough (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Tale of the Heike, translated by Helen Craig McCullough, Stanford University Press, 1988, pp. 1-11.

[In the following essay, McCullough considers the political and social changes taking place in twelfth-century Japan which inspired the creation of the Heike Monogatari.]

As the twelfth century waned, no thoughtful Japanese could have failed to recognize that the long Heian interlude of peace, economic security, and cultural florescence was nearing its end, and that a new political force was threatening the imperial court's hegemony. The signs were unmistakable.

In the countryside, there had been a steady evolution away...

(The entire section is 5162 words.)

Paul Varley (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Warriors as Courtiers: The Taira in Heike Monogatari,” in Currents in Japanese Culture: Translations and Transformations, edited by Amy Vladeck Heinrich, Columbia University Press, 1997, pp. 53-70.

[In the following essay, Varley examines how later interpretations of the Heike Monogatari served to lend an aristocratic character to various warriors.]

Japan's entry into the medieval age (1185-1573) in the late twelfth century was accompanied by an epochal transition in leadership of the country, when the emperor and the ministers who served him at his court in Kyoto relinquished national rule to provincial warrior chieftains. But this...

(The entire section is 7887 words.)

Herbert Plutschow (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “The Placatory Nature of The Tale of the Heike: Additional Documents and Thoughts,” in Currents in Japanese Culture: Translations and Transformations, edited by Amy Vladeck Heinrich, Columbia University Press, 1997, pp. 71-80.

[In the following essay, Plutschow contends that a major purpose for the Heike Monogatari was to appease angry gods and guilty consciences.]

In my book Chaos and Cosmos: Ritual in Classical Japanese Literature, I discuss a number of texts suggesting that the Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike) was recited in part to placate the spirits of its heroes. These texts range from legends such as “Earless...

(The entire section is 4335 words.)

Further Reading


Arnn, Barbara Louise. “Medieval Fiction and History in the Heike Monogatari Story Tradition.” Dissertation Abstracts International 45, No. 5 (November 1984): 1402-A.

Outlines study of the role played by the Heike Monogatari in passing on Japanese cultural traditions.

Bialock, David Theodore. “Peripheries of Power: Voice, History, and the Construction of Imperial and Sacred Space in The Tale of the Heike and Other Medieval and Heian Historical Texts.” Dissertation Abstracts International 58, No. 2 (August 1997): 459-A.

Outlines study which emphasizes the historiographical...

(The entire section is 278 words.)