The Tale of the Heike

Translated By Royal Tyler

Viking—published by the Penguin Group | 2012

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

The Jetavana Temple bells
 Ring the passing of all things
 Twinned sal trees, white in full flower,
 Declare the great man’s certain fall.

In the Twelfth Century AD, while in the West the Crusaders were marching in droves to the re-conquer the Holy Land from the infidel Muslims (both Muslims and Christians referred to the other as “infidels”) and the main characters that strut that stage were Richard the Lion-Hearted and Saladin, in the far East, in Japan, another pageant was being played out between the Heike and Genji samurai clans. The star in this play was the ruthless Taira (Heike) war-lord, Kiyomori.

In the West we have Homer’s epic Iliad and Odyssey; and, in the East we have The Tale of Genji (also recently translated by Royall Tyler, an Oriental scholar retired from the Australian National University where he taught Japanese language and literature) and now, The Tale of the Heike. It’s illustrated with 55 woodcuts from the 19th Century artist Teisai Hokuba, a disciple of Hokusai, and is supplemented by maps, genealogies and notes.

The Tale of the Heike (平家物語 Heike Monogatari) is an epic account of the struggle between the Tairaand Minamota (Genji) clans for control of Japan at the end of the 12th century in the Genpei War (1180-1185).

The Tale of the Heike's origin cannot be reduced to a single creator. Like most epic poems, it is the result of a conglomeration of differing versions passed down through an oral tradition by biwa (similar to a lute)-playing bards known as biwahṓshi.

The 14th Century monk Yoshida Kenkō (1282-1350) offers a theory as to the authorship of the text, in his famous work "Essays in Idleness" (Tsureureguas), which he wrote in 1330. According to Kenkō, "The former governor of Shinano, Yukinaga, wrote Heike monogatari and showed it to a blind man called Shōbutsu to chant it." He confirms the biwa connection to that blind man, who "was from the eastern tract,” and who was sent from Yukinaga to "recollect some information about samurai, about their bows, their horses and their war strategy. Yukinaga wrote it after that.”

It has been translated into English at least five times, the first by A.L. Sadler in 1918–1921. A complete translation in nearly 800 pages by Hiroshi Kitagawa and Bruce T. Tsuchida was published in 1975. It was also translated by Helen McCullough in 1988. An abridged translation by Burton Watson was published in 2006. In 2012 Royall Tyler completed his translation, which seeks to be mindful of the performance style for which the work was originally intended. Royall Tyler’s translation conveys not only the words of this grand tale but also a taste of the way it was performed.

When Neworld Review Editor Fred Beauford sent me The Tale of the Heike to review, at first I found it daunting, but I once I started reading it, I fell under its enchantment. Royall Tyler’s lively translation makes it imminently readable. I was amused that sometimes he uses American slang, such as Brooklynese “Whaddaya want?” “gobblegook,” and it seems entirely appropriate.

The stories told in this epic are engaging and profound—just as many of the stories I encountered in my study of Islam, they aren’t known in the West. They are a reflection of the Buddhism that infused the psyches of the Japanese people in medieval Japan. Their dominant themes are impermanence, the fall of the mighty, and karma. As a Christian, The Tale of the Heike was of particular interest as it gave me a window into the lives of medieval Japanese Buddhists.

Those who inhabit The Tale of the Heike have an ardent humanity, and they tend to adhere to a strict code of conduct and ethical behavior.

The favored punishment then, other than death, was banishment: Conspirators against Lord Kiyomori, Naritsune, Yasuyori and Shunkan, are exiled to the Kikai-ga-shima Island near the Satsuma province. Naritsune and Yasuyori are recalled, leaving Shunkan alone on the island. A famous tragic scene follows when Shunkan follows their departing ship into the water, and, when he realizes that they intend to leave without him, beats his feet on the ground in despair. Sometime later, a loyal youth in his service, Ariō, journeys to the island. He finds Shunkan barely alive. Upon hearing the news of his family’s death, Shunkan kills himself by fasting. His suffering, as well as the whirlwind that strikes the capital, are seen as signs indicating the fall of the Taira.

Another famous episode characterizes the arrogance of Lord Kiyomori: when his favorite court dancer Giō persuades him to watch Hotoke, a beautiful young dancer who has presented herself at the palace, Lord Kiyomori becomes so enamored of Hotoke that he deposes Giō and instates Hotoke in her place. Giōand and her mother withdraw from the world and become nuns. Hotoke’s conscience dictates that she leave Kiyomori’s service and she joins them.

In another section, Lord Kiyomori is angered by the participation of the Retired Emperor in a plot and prepares to arrest him. Shigemori, his eldest virtuous son, successfully deters his intention by reminding him of the Confucian value of loyalty to the Emperor. He says to him:

“There are in this world, you see, four great obligations:
 to heaven and earth, to sovereign, to father and mother,
 and to sentient beings. That to the sovereign is greatest:
 ‘Under heaven there is no land that is not the king’s.’

“Accounts often have a delicacy of feeling, especially expressed when people who love each other say goodbye and dab their tears on the sleeves of their kimonos; there is a poetic sensitivity to the beauty of the natural world:

“Two who spend just half a day 
happily beneath the blossoms 
companions for a single night
 passed contemplating the full noon,
 travelers caught by a shower,
 who shelter under the same tree:
 All these grieve when they say goodbye.
 How much truer, then this must be
of two who have suffered together
I sland exile, shared sea voyages,
 braved the waves, and in life
 both experienced the same karma.
 Surely they understood full well
 the strength of a bond from lives gone by.”

The following story indicates how karma plays itself out in the life of Lord Kiyomori:

In 1181, Retired Emperor Takakura dies troubled by the events of the last several years. Kiso no Yoshinaka plans a rebellion against the Taira and raises an army. Messengers bring news of anti-Taira forces gathering under the Minamoto leadership in the eastern provinces. The Taira have trouble dealing with all the rebellions.

To make things worse for the Taira, their leader, Kiyomori, falls ill. His body is hot as fire and no water can cool him. Water sprayed on his body turns to flames and black smoke fills the room. Kiyomori’s wife has a dream about a carriage in flames that will take Kiyomori to Hell for burning Buddhist statues (in the Tōdaiji temple). Before dying in agony, Kiyomori makes a wish to have the head of Yoritomo hung before his grave. His death (in 1181, age 64) highlights the themes of impermanence and fall of the mighty. Kiyomori’s evil deeds will become his torturers in Hell. His fame and power turned to smoke (he was cremated) and dust (bones).

I find the concept of karma utterly just—each person gets exactly what he or she deserves—no more, no less (in contrast to the Christian concept of grace, the death of Christ as an expiation for the sins of the world, which is somewhat confusing.) Karma, on the other hand, seems to conform to mathematical precision and the laws of physics: each action produces an exact and equal reaction…

Shintoism was the indigenous religion of Japan. The word Shinto ("Way of the Gods") means "spirit," meaning a path or study that is associated with various venues--some human, others animistic, and others associated with "natural" forces in the world such as mountains, rivers, lightning, wind, waves, trees, rocks. It’s a more primitive religion than Buddhism.

Buddhism was introduced into Japan in the 6th Century. It’s a religion indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. It encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs, and practices largely based on teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly known as “the Buddha” (meaning "the awakened one" in Sanskrit). The Buddha lived and taught in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. He is recognized by Buddhists as an enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help sentient beings end suffering (dukkha) through eliminating ignorance (avidyā) by way of understanding, seeing dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) and eliminating craving (taṇhā), thus attaining the highest happiness, nirvāņa (nirvana).Buddhism was the predominant religion of medieval Japan, the religion operable in The Tale of the Heike.

Certain themes that have their origin in Buddhism are reflected in the tales told—renunciation, withdrawal from worldly affairs and the embrace of a monastic life of asceticism and contemplation; karma, “the total effect of a person’s action and conduct during the successive phases of his existence, determining his destiny” (from The American Heritage Dictionary); and reincarnation, or rebirth. When a soul finally reaches nirvana, he will no longer be reborn.

This is book is a wonderful treasure. I think that anyone who has an interest in Japanese culture and literature will want to add it to his library. As stated in the publication materials: “No one work of Japanese literature or music has had a greater impact on subsequent Japanese literature, theater, and music—indeed on the Japanese people’s very sense of their own past.”

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