The Tales of the Heike

December 25, 2012

Sometimes its hard to explain why I devote time to certain things. Sudoku puzzles, the daily comics (conveniently located on the same page as the sudoku), or reading a partial translation of an obscure piece of 13th Japanese literature. The puzzles … there is satisfaction in finding and filling in the numbers. The comics … sometimes I laugh. The literature … harder to say. Two Japanese families engage in a series of bloody battles. What’s the attraction? What kept me reading this instead of doing something more important?

I stumbled into The Tales of the Heike (trans. Burton Watson, ed. Haruo Shirane) quite by accident. I had gone down into the college library basement looking for another obscure book, Tales of Genji, but when I saw the appealingly skinny Tales of the Heiki standing near the many fat volumes of the Genji, I instantly refocused on a less daunting task. If I could complete the Heiki and enjoy it, maybe I could read the Genji too. (And it helped that I had already enjoyed some other translations by Burton Watson. He wouldn’t have thrown away his time on the Heiki if there wasn’t something in it worth reading.) So I grabbed the Heiki along with several books of Genji and headed for home. It’s heartening to know that I still approach certain choices like a 3-year-old.

The basic outline of The Tales of the Heiki is laid out in the Introduction. That said, I ended up reading almost half the book before I finally grasped the big picture of what was going on. To put it simply, the Taira clan (Heiki) were at the top of the heap in Japan in 1180. They held the important government posts and had even married into the Emperor’s family. Their word was law. But the chief of the Taira couldn’t help abusing his powers and another clan, the Minamoto (Genji), decided to throw them out. This took a few years and quite a few bloody battles (the Minamoto also took time out to fight amongst themselves), but the Taira were ultimately wiped out, right down to the youngest child.

The battlefield descriptions are not too gory except when it comes to beheadings. Apparently, a mounted samurai could pin an adversary’s head against the pommel of his saddle and separate head and body with one or two sword cuts. Severed heads served several purposes. They could be used as trophies, mounted for public display, and used to identify adversaries in the rare event that a warrior forgot to tell you his name. (One wonders if members of Congress would have been more satisfied if Osama bin Laden’s head had been delivered to Congress?) Ugh.
12th century warfare relied on physical skill and strength and also a bit of luck. One encounter is described this way:
“Tadanori [a Taira lord] drew his sword and struck three blows at Rokuyata [a Genji warrior] two while the latter was still seated in the saddle and a third after he had unhorsed him. The first two glanced off Rokuyata’s armor and did no harm. The third pierced his face, though not with sufficient force to kill him.
Tadanori pinned his attacker to the ground and was about to cut off his head when Rokuyata’s page, rushing up from behind, drew his long sword and with one blow cut off Tadanori’s arm at the elbow.
Tadanori realized this was the end. ‘Give me time enough for ten invocations of the Buddha!’ he said. Gripping Rokuyata, he flung him a bow’s length to the side. Then he faced west and, in a loud voice, recited these words: ‘His bright light illumines the worlds in the ten directions. Without fail He gathers up all living beings who recite His name!’ He had scarcely concluded his recitation when Rokuyata approached from behind and struck off his head.”
The author of The Tales also remembers Tadanori for his poems, several of which are quoted. On the run from the Genji, Tadanori leaves a scroll of poems with Shunzei, a famous poet. As Tadanori departs, Shunzei thinks he can hear Tadanori reciting from afar:
“Long is the journey before me – my thoughts race
with the evening clouds over Wild Goose Mountain”
And, after Rokuyata kills Tadanori, he discovers this poem on a slip of paper in Tadanori’s arrow quiver:
“Evening drawing on, I’ll take lodging in the shade of this tree,
and make its blossoms my host for the night.”
Perhaps sadder than the path of certain death is the path of total renunciation taken by various nobles and courtesans. The irony here is that The Tales is fundamentally a religious book. It begins with this testament: “The bells of the Gion monastery in India echo with the warning that all things are impermanent. The blossoms of the sala trees teach us through their hues that what flourishes must fade. The proud do not prevail for long but vanish like a spring night’s dream. In time the mighty, too, succumb: all are dust before the wind.” And yet many of the Heike who turn to religion do so only in extremis and only with great sadness and bitterness. The draw of courtly life must be very strong indeed.

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