The Tale of the Heike (Heike monogatari, 平家物語) is an epic account of the struggle between the Taira and Minamoto clans for control of Japan at the end of the twelfth century in the Gempei War (1180-1185). Heike (平家) refers to the Taira (平) clan; hei is an alternate reading of the kanji (character) for Taira.
The Tale of the Heike was compiled in 1240 by an unknown author from a collection of oral stories composed and recited by traveling monks, who chanted them to the accompaniment of the biwa (lute). The most widely read version of the Heike monogatari was compiled by a blind monk named Kakuichi in 1371, and includes later revisions glorifying military valor. The story is intended to be told in a series of nightly installments. Written in the genre of "gunki monogatari" (military tales), the story illustrates themes of samurai ethics and glorifies the military values of loyalty, bravery, and strong leadership. It also promulgates Buddhist teachings; the theme of the impermanence of the material world appears throughout the story, and the fates of the characters are preordained by the good or evil deeds of prior existences. Often characters seek enlightenment, or atone for their sins, by entering religious life. The Tale of the Heike is considered one of the great classics of medieval Japanese literature and has provided material for many later artistic works ranging from Noh plays to woodblock prints.
The story of the Heike monogatari was compiled from a collection of oral stories composed and recited by traveling monks, who chanted them to the accompaniment of the biwa (琵琶), a four-stringed instrument reminiscent of the lute. Around 1240 the stories were gathered together into an epic by an unknown author. The most widely read version of the Heike monogatari was compiled by a blind monk named Kakuichi in 1371, and includes later revisions glorifying military valor.
The story is episodic in nature and designed to be told in a series of nightly installments. It is primarily a samurai epic focusing on warrior culture, an ideology that ultimately laid the groundwork for bushido (the way of the warrior). The Heike also includes a number of love stories, which harkens back to earlier Heian literature.
The central theme of the story is the Buddhist law of impermanence, illustrated by the spectacular rise and fall of the powerful Taira, the samurai clan who defeated the imperial-backed Minamoto in 1161 and established the first military-run government in Japan. The theme of impermanence (mujō, 無常) is captured in the famous opening passage:
The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.
The Tale of the Heike. Chapter 1.1, trans. by Helen Craig McCullough
The Tale of the Heike is considered one of the great classics of medieval Japanese literature and has provided material for many later artistic works ranging from Noh plays to woodblock prints.
Based on the actual historical struggle between the Taira (Heike) and Minamoto (Genji) families, which convulsed Japan in civil war for years, the Heike monogatari features the exploits of Minamoto Yoshitsune, the most popular hero of Japanese legend, and recounts many episodes of the heroism of aristocratic samurai warriors. Its overall theme is the tragic downfall of the Taira family, who sowed the seeds of their own destruction with acts of arrogance and pride that led to their defeat in the sea battle of Dannoura (1185), in which, along with many warriors, the seven-year-old emperor and many noble courtiers were drowned. The epic concludes by describing the subsequent life of the empress mother and ends as it began, with the tolling of a bell, as she dies in a remote convent.
The story is roughly divided into three sections, covering a span of ninety years, from 1131 to 1221. The central figure of the first section is Taira no Kiyomori (平清盛) who is described as arrogant, evil, ruthless and so consumed by the fires of hatred that even in death his feverish body does not cool when immersed in water. The main figure of the second section is the Minamoto general Minamoto no Yoshinaka (源義仲). After he dies the main figure of the third section is the great samurai, Minamoto no Yoshitsune (源義経), a military genius who is falsely accused of treachery by his politically astute elder brother Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝). The story only briefly mentions Kiyomori's rise to power in alliance with Emperor Go-Shirakawa, and instead details the latter years of his life, when he manipulates his way to the highest position in the imperial court. Although he marries one of his daughters to an emperor and become Emperor's Antoku's grandfather, his glory does not survive him. His heir, Shigemori, dies early, leaving clan leadership in the hands of his incompetent brother, Munemori, who is unable to defend the clan against the attacks of the revitalized Minamoto.
The three Minamoto heirs, whose lives have been spared by Taira Kiyomori, return from exile to vanquish the Taira during the Genpei War. Minamoto Yoshinaka defeats the Taira and forces them to retreat from Kyoto, but when he attempts to assume leadership of the Minamoto clan, Minamoto no Yoritomo sends his brothers Yoshitsune and Noriyori to depose him. Yoshitsune then pursues the remaining members of the Taira clan and destroys them with cunning battle strategies, only to be betrayed by his own brother.
The sense of "mono no aware" (the sorrow which results from the passage of things; see Motoori Norinaga) pervades the narrative and alongside the tales of bravery in battle, there are references to Chinese and Japanese legends, poignant recitations of poetry, and frequent "drenching of sleeves" with tears. The excitement of Yoshitsune's military exploits are balanced by the sad experiences of Koremori, the Imperial Lady, Shigehira, and various lesser characters during their flight from the capital, and subsequent wandering throughout Japan.
The Tale of the Heike is written in the genre of gunki monogatari (military tales) and contains many of the themes of samurai ethics and values: personal loyalty to one's lord; negation of the self; self-sacrifice unto death; an austere and simple life; control of the appetites and emotions; and an honorable death. The story glorifies the military values of loyalty, bravery, and strong leadership, and recounts great deeds of honor and duty, self-sacrifice, clever deceit and unexpected outcomes.
It is a massive, episodic work meant to be recited and heard, rather than read. The biwa-hoshi, blind monks who recited the tale while they accompanied themselves with the biwa (a Japanese short-necked fretted lute), made the story familiar among common people throughout Japan. Its breadth, style, meaning, organization, and cultural significance make it second in importance only to The Tale of Genji.
The tale is important as a historical source as it is told in chronological order and the sections begin with dates. It documents the rise of the samurai class to a position of national prominence and contains valuable descriptions of cultural details, and lists of the names of participants in various battles and events. It also illustrates the conflict between the traditional values of the conservative imperial court and the values of the new provincial military.
The theme of the impermanence of the material world appears throughout the story, and the narrator issues constant admonitions that the proud must fall and that, regardless of how long it endures, and to what heights it rises, everything in this world will perish. The story begins and ends as an elegy, with the tolling of the temple bells symbolizing defeat and death.
Buddhist monks used the narrative as a means of promulgating Buddhist teachings, which are reiterated throughout the story. The narrator details each iniquity committed by the Taira, predicting their downfall for at least seven years. The fates of the characters are preordained, by the good or evil deeds of prior existences. Often characters seek enlightenment, or atone for their sins, by entering religious life; Koremori takes the tonsure before committing suicide, and the Imperial Lady lives out the last years of her life as a nun.