Heike’s story and his historical roots in classical Japanese literature



Heike’s story is by far the most striking anime of the fall season and one of the most unique shows of 2021. Its tale of love, war and tragedy told against a backdrop of feudal Japan is downright fascinating, but equally impressive is the “story” this anime is based on. We’re not talking about a recent manga or light novel, or even a book written in the last century. No, Heike Monogatari (å¹³ 家 物語) is a tale that dates back to 14th century Japan and is widely regarded as one of the most important pieces of medieval Japanese literature equivalent to something like the Odyssey for Western literature. The more you understand this historical story that this anime is based on, the more you realize how Heike’s story is.

Heike Monogatari recounts the rise and fall of the Heike clan during the Genpei War in Japan in the 12th century. However, it did not begin as a literary work, but was transmitted orally by traveling monks who were often accompanied by the biwa instrument. The name of our original anime protagonist, Biwa, is a tribute to those early storytellers who were pivotal in preserving history in its early days.

The ultimate fate of Biwa leaving her blind also concerns the blind monk Kakuichi, whose tale was recorded in 1371 and would be considered the final written version.

Source: Funimation

Biwa is however much more than just a bunch of winks and references. It is the conduit through which the viewer experiences a story that you most likely already have intimate knowledge of, especially if you were born and raised in Japan. Biwa can see the future and knows how everything is going to play out, but is unable to do anything about it no matter how badly she wishes. The frustration and sadness of watching loved ones move towards their demise resonates powerfully from her soul to yours, for you also know how it all ends. The only difference is that Biwa sees the future as we see the past but neither of us can change either.

One of the fundamental principles of Heike Monogatari – and even one of its first lines – is the impermanence between all things. The way that prominent and important figures unceremoniously die with little to no fanfare and the fact that Biwa’s supernatural presence doesn’t change anything only reinforces this theme. Even those unfamiliar with the original story, like the vast majority of Western audiences, can grasp these themes due to Biwa’s position in the story. She leaves a lasting impression on those around her and has a presence that cannot be ignored. Yet she is a single flower petal at the mercy of the tides of history. The fact that Biwa doesn’t look like an empty calorie character, but still doesn’t affect the overall story of the original Heike Monogatari is a testament to the Science SARU storytelling.

The historic town of Heike
Source: Funimation

Equally impressive is Science SARU’s dedication to its unique animation style for this narrative. Solid colors without detailed shading and rather simplistic character designs are reminiscent of Japanese ukiyo-e prints. As the medium grew in importance during the 18th and 19th centuries of Japan, Heike Monogatari has become a naturally popular subject of representation.

The crucial and famous scenes naturally attracted the most attention, as archer Genji Nasu no Yoichi shooting a flag held atop a pole by a female Heike during the Battle of Yashima. Another poignant chapter came when warrior Genji Kumagae Naozane challenged runaway Heike clan member Taira no Atsumori to a duel. Atsumori was only sixteen and when Kumagae glimpsed his youth, he remembered his own son. After delivering the final blow, he remembered the impermanence of human life; Kumagae then retired to become a monk. These two scenes are also captured in Heike’s story lively.

Heikemonogatari Nasu no Yoichi
Adachi Ginko Ukiyo-e print. Above: Nasu no Yoichi shoots an arrow at a fan held from afar by a female Heike. Below: Kumagae Naozane pins Taira no Atsumori. Source: Library of Congress
Heikemonogatari Kumagae Naozane
Ukiyo-e print by Utagawa Kunisada. Kumagae Naozane is struck by the youth of Taira no Atsumori and hesitates to deliver the final blow. Source: Ritsumeikan University
The story of Heike Kumagae Naozane
Source: Funimation
The story of Heike Nasu no Yoichi
Source: Funimation

Ukiyo-e artists also made sure to render battles on a macro scale, illustrating the vast scale of these conflicts. Numerous panoramic shots of Heike’s story anime also mimic these kind of frenzied impressions.

Heikemonogatari
Unknown artist. Ukiyo-e print illustrating the battle of Yashima in Heike Monogatari. Source: Art Gallery of South Australia
Source: Funimation

On the flip side, some of the quieter moments in history have also been captured by artists, like this scene from Taira no Koremori as he sits in silent reflection, fully aware of the impending drop in his sound. clan.

Ukiyo-e print by Iwasa Matabei. Represents Taira no Koremori as he bids farewell to his wife for the last time. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Given the translated version of Heike Monogatari is around 800 pages long, it’s amazing that Science SARU was able to condense it into an 11-episode animated series. The fact that Heike’s story the anime so effectively encapsulates and conveys the fundamentals of the original work while asserting itself as a distinct medium is nothing short of amazing. It’s a truly wonderful glimpse into medieval Japanese literature that a Western audience so rarely gets, and one that explains loud and clear why the original work is so classic.


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