"Heike Monogatari," which in translation is titled "The Tale of Heike," starts off thus: "The sound of the Gion Shoja bells echoes the impermanence of all things." But is it a military chronicle detailing the fall of the once mighty Heike? No, it is much more than that.
The central character of the tale, Taira no Kiyomori （1118-1181）, appears in this year's long-running historical drama from Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK). Kiyomori, stricken by a severe fever, suddenly dies midway in the story, in Chapter 6.
The book uses this event as a transition between the first and second halves, each of which has a very different mood.
The first half is an account of the multitudinous wicked deeds committed by the vainglorious Kiyomori, while the second depicts the retribution incurred for this evilness. The full tale is structured to show us the concept of "ingaoho," which roughly translates as "retributive justice."
The first half explains the "why" behind the Heike's downfall, as expressed by the "ingaoho."
One example, in Chapter 5, is the razing of Nara. Kiyomori ordered an attack on Kofukuji temple, but the resulting fire spread to engulf the Great Hall of the Buddha at Todaiji temple.
In the second half, after Kiyomori's death, the focus is placed on the "how" behind the Heike's downfall, as expressed by the "ga" (meaning "effect") in ingaoho. The setting shifts between military engagements, such as in Chapter 11, when the clan is trying to escape and progressively falling into ruin at the battles of Yashima and Dan-no-ura.
But if the reader only focuses on Kiyomori in the story, then there is the risk of missing out a lot.
A careful count shows that there are more than 1,000 characters in the tale. And each one is depicted thoroughly to give them life.
"Every one of the characters stands out, much like AKB48," says Yoko Itasaka, professor emeritus at Fukuoka University of Education, who invites us into the world of the "Tale of Heike." "There is certain to be one character you will take a liking to while you read it."
However, one reason some people become discouraged and fail to read to the last page is that they cannot make sense of who is who because there are so many characters.
"If you keep in mind the three disturbances in the first half, when the Heike are at the height of opulence, and the second half, when the Heike conduct a fighting retreat at three battles, then it's easier to follow," Itasaka said.
The three disturbances refer to the Shishigatani Incident, the conspiracy by Takakuranomiya (1151-1180), also known as Prince Mochihito, and the launch of Yoritomo's campaign against the Heike, while the three battles are Ichi-no-tani, Yashima and Dan-no-ura.
Although this categorization omits some characters and events, according to Itasaka one can read through the story while remembering things along the lines of "this person appeared in this battle" and "this event happened before this battle."
With so much bloodshed, it would seem that the "Tale of Heike" is simply a story of machismo. But Shinichi Saeki, a professor of literature at Aoyama Gakuin University, says that is not the case.
"'Heike Monogatari' is interesting in that people's weaknesses come to the fore," Saeki said.
In Chapter 3, when it seems that the Buddhist monk Shunkan will be abandoned in exile on the island of Kikai-ga-shima for gathering conspirators to overthrow the Heike, he clings to the boat and screams, "Let me on!"
In Chapter 9, when Kiso Yoshinaka (Minamoto no Yoshinaka), known as a man of valor, faces fresh enemy troops, he throws a tantrum and says, "I want to die with my foster brother, Imai Kanehira!" He is then slain by the arrow of a lowly foot soldier.
"Heike Monogatari" vividly, and at times indifferently, portrays human weaknesses when pressed into extreme circumstances prior to one's death, as well as the subtleties of the human heart.
Saeki says, "It makes you realize that this is what humans are really like." He calls the tale a piece of literature that soothes the reader and makes that person genuinely empathize with weakness.
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