top of page


#241. THE TALE OF THE HEIKE.  The Genpei war, the late twelfth-century conflict between the Taira and Minamoto clans, echoes throughout the written and dramatic literature of Japan, and surfaces again and again in its military-historic narratives, Noh plays, Kabuki plays, cinema and, inevitably, computer and arcade games.  Its time and events have been described as one of the triggers for bushido, the Samurai ethos, endlessly dramatized and romanticized.  Of this vast catalogue, the masterpiece is the Heike Monogotari, or Tale of the Heike, which represents its most complex and moving artistic representation, and, with its steady gaze, its events echoing to the temple bells that begin and close the narrative, its most thorough and pointed subversion.

      The Tale of the Heike came to its current form in the early fourteenth century, some two hundred years after the other early masterwork of Japanese narrative, The Tale of Genji.  It evolved from sung and spoken performances, usually accompanied by thebiwa, the Japanese lute.  The most recent and very accomplished translation by Royall Tyler attempts to bring across the varying levels of narration, comparable to speech, recitative and aria in an opera or oratorio. This also begins to convey the mix of genre in the term monogotari.  The Tale is a history or chronicle, with exact care given to places, dates and long Homeric-nod lists of the names of those present at the various battles, but interspersed with superbly rendered scenes of confrontation, strategizing and, most affectingly, farewells.  And far from any Olympian tone of impartiality or objectivity, its shape is shot through with an insistent sense of the evanescence of power and glory, a Buddhist feeling for the irreality of all this commotion and striving.  The observation is historic; the mood is pathos and tragedy.

      For the modern Western reader it is a mix as well of the barbaric and unfamiliar in with the aristocratic and refined.  The claiming of an opponent’s head in battle strangely recalls the world of the Irish Tain Bo Cuailgne.  The soldiers’ elaborate and brocaded battle-garb are subject to detailed and rather fetching description: one of the Minamoto, for instance, gets “a long white silk hitatare” (a long, square-sleeved coat) “under leather armor with indigo-dyed, white-fern-patterned lacing.”  Taira no Noritsune gets “to wear a tie-dyed kosode robe / under Chinese damask-laced armor.”  When any one of these fashionably clad soldiers is about to lop off the head of an opponent, he will stop to announce loudly his names and clan.  (This was a habit which backfired rather badly when, later in history, the Japanese fought the less ceremonious Mongolians; a lot of Japanese soldiers got cut off mid-pronouncement.)  The level of honorable nicety and self-questioning can seem like pure Henry James, and the frequency of wailing and tear-shedding—“wetting their sleeves with tears,” in the stock Japanese phrase—will be disconcerting to men expecting the occidental, suffer-in-silence style of Western action heroes.

       And there are women, no longer in the midst of the perfumed romances of Genji, but the wives and mothers, desolated and abandoned, left to starvation or death or the convent, all portrayed with a stark pity worthy of Euripides.  This is where all the battle-cries and exultation lead to: a woman left with children to care for, and a husband killed in war, or with an infant torn from her arms to be killed for its sin of being the scion of an enemy clan, or to be left to become a nun and spend the rest of her life murmuring the nembutsu for those cut down.  It is no stray touch that the Tale ends with a long chapter showing a deposed empress saying farewell to her spouse, entering a convent and at last being received into the Pure Land, the Buddhist paradise.  Hundreds of pages earlier, the temple bell at Jetavana tolls the brevity of life; at the end, the bell at Jakko-in is heard as Kenreimon-in speaks her prayer “through a flood of tears.”  The hundreds of warriors, noble and ignoble, rise and fall before us in memory.  “Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” Donne warned us, centuries later.  Namu Amida Butsu.

The Tale of the Heike, translated by Royall Tyler.  Penguin Books, 2002.  The illustrations, from a nineteenth century Japanese edition, are by Teisai Hokuba, “star pupil of the great print artist Hokusai,” and they’re terrific.



Recent Posts

See All


#242. NO SUMMER FRIEND, BUT WINTRY COLD.  Born in 1830, Christina Rossetti was the youngest of four children born to an Italian political exile and an English woman named Frances Polidori—sister to th


#240: I FOUGHT WITH THE WEAPONS OF POETRY.  Back in my movie-devouring college days in the early seventies, I was introduced to the films of the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini.  I was young, and


#239:  LIKE A SMALL BIRD SEALED OFF FROM DAYLIGHT.  Reading about Louise Gluck, you hit these words repeatedly: trauma, depression, illness, dark.  Her first collection was described as “hard, artful,


bottom of page