The Tale of the Heike (translated by Royall Tyler, review copy courtesy of Penguin Classics) is a monumental work, a collection of stories from a period of history which together form something akin to a Japanese Iliad. We begin in the middle of the twelfth century, where under the leadership of the great Tadamori, the Taira (or 'Heike') clan has become the most powerful family in the land, eclipsing the fortunes of the other major clan, the Minamoto (or 'Genji'). The first books of the work chart the rise in the strength of the Taira, who eventually come to possess most of the important imperial positions, in addition to providing a wife for the reigning emperor.
Under the leadership of Tadamori's son, Kiyomori, the Heike reach the zenith of their influence, banishing and executing most of their serious rivals, and when the Empress gives birth to a male heir (later to be made Emperor himself), it appears that their power is unmatchable:
"This, our island land of Japan,Pride, however, is known to come before a fall, and the way in which the Taira clan seize power doesn't please everyone. In the provinces, the exiled Genji are waiting, and in the space of a few short years, the dynasty Kiyomori has built up will be swept away forever...
has only sixty-six provinces,
and the Heike ruled over thirty.
Half the realm and more was theirs,
quite apart from all their estates,
their countless fields, paddy and dry."
Book One, p.15 (Penguin Classics, 2014)
The Tale of the Heike is a monumental work, seven-hundred pages of poetry, myths, intrigue, battles and noble deaths. It's the foundation of many later Japanese works, not only in literature, but also in Kabuki, Noh and art, and it's a story any self-respecting Japanophile has to read at some point. In many ways, it can be compared to Shakespearean tragedies, with its handling of major historical events enhanced by the psychological insights into the minds of the major protagonists.
The flawed character of the piece, a strong man with none of the doubts of a Hamlet or a Macbeth, is Lord Kiyomori, a nobleman who has rendered great service to the Imperial family over the years, putting down insurrections and removing all threats from the capital. However, in his desire to strengthen his family's position, he is blind to the resentment he is sowing. His son, Shigemori, has a cooler, wiser head than his father and attempts to warn him of the dangers of his actions:
"The deeds of the fathers, good or bad,Despite the respect the father has for the son, the overbearing behaviour continues, and when Shigemori passes away, it's inevitable that Kiyomori will continue down his all-or-nothing path.
clearly touch their descendants' lives.
The house with a rich store of good
will thrive far into times to come;
the one long given to evil ways
faces only calamity -
so I have heard..."
Book Two, p.84
Eventually, the tide begins to turn, and the enemies of the Heike begin to think seriously about how they can remove the hated family from power. With the tacit acceptance of the cloistered (retired) Emperor Go Shirakawa, exiled members of the Genji, under the leadership of Minamoto no Yoritomo, begin to gather their forces in preparation for the battles to come. The spark comes when a tentative uprising led by an Imperial prince is crushed, leading to the burning of temples in Nara and the removal of the capital to Fukuhara (now Kobe):
One might say that the Heike had now committed their greatest outrage yet.With the support of the neutrals wavering, and armies of Genji warriors massed to the East, life in Kyoto is about to get very interesting indeed...
"Ever since back in the Angen years," people kept saying,
"that man has banished or killed senior nobles and privy gentlemen,
exiled a regent, appointed his own son-in-law regent,
shifted the cloistered emperor to a Seinan Palace,
and murdered his second son, Prince Mochihito.
In short, moving the capital is probably just the last affront he could think of."
Book Five, p.252
While the writing of The Tale of the Heike is attributed to 14th-Century Buddhist monks, the English-language version is very much Tyler's work (and a wonderful work it is too). From the forbidding picture of Kiyomori on the cover to the detailed maps at the back, the whole book shows how much work has gone into its creation. In addition to the above, the reader is also treated to an introduction setting the scene, family trees, glossaries and copious footnotes for those who want them.
The handling of the actual text is also rather interesting. Tyler has chosen to put the book into three differing styles: one is a descriptive prose, one a declarative recitation style and the other reserved for songs or Japanese poetry. This mix of styles lends the text a Homerian air at times, and in addition to the imagery of words, there is also the real thing. The book includes many ink drawings from a 19th-Century Japanese edition of the book (drawn by Tesai Hokuba, a pupil of the famous Hokusai), each detailing a pivotal, and well-known, scene from the story.
None of that would be important, though, if the story was no good, so it's lucky that The Tale of the Heike is a cracking read. Like the Iliad, it's full of stories of heroic warriors and their deeds, with soldiers challenging their enemies and performing miraculous feats of strength and courage. There are sea battles (in which the Genji attempt to recover the boy Emperor and the three treasures of the imperial line - including Amaterasu's mirror...), political intrigue, infighting for positions and even a cast of thousands of warrior monks - what's not to like? ;)
In fairness, I'd have to say that there are a few dull areas. The writers had a tendency to give warriors lengthy back stories after their death, and the repeated descriptions of prayers and lists of warriors on the march can pall after a while. There's also a lot more repetition than is accepted in English (I lost track of how many times a character turned away with 'their sleeves soaked by tears'...), and it would take a very determined reader indeed to absorb every word of the book.
These are minor quibbles, though, and the truth is that I loved it. The Tale of the Heike is a truly epic, spectacular book, a classic of world literature, and Tyler deserves immense praise for making it into a novel that many an Anglophone reader will enjoy. It's a work which underpins Japanese cultural history, and any J-Lit fan who gives it a try will come out of the experience with their knowledge of the area greatly enriched.
So, where to from here? Well, it just so happens that Tyler is also the man who put out a highly-acclaimed version of the all-time Japanese classic, Lady Murasaki's magnum opus, and after reading this, I'm keener than ever to continue my adventures in classic J-Lit. I said it last year, and I'll say it again this year (hopefully, with more accuracy!) - 2015 will be the year of The Tale of Genji ;)