Heike Monogatari Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.”