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The Tale of the Heike 
translated by Royall Tyler.
Viking, 734 pp., $50, October 2012, 978 0 670 02513 8
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The decline and fall of the Heian nobility, which is chronicled in The Tale of the Heike, provoked much lamentation among the poets of Japan. At the start of the 13th century, the court poet Kamo no Chomei was passed over for a prestigious post and left the imperial capital of Heian-kyo (present-day Kyoto). He took the tonsure, and lived henceforth as a grouchy hermit in a hut. There he produced his masterpiece, the verse-essay Hojoki, which translates as ‘Writings from a Place Ten Feet Square’.* A charmingly disenchanted blend of Thoreau and the Prophet Jeremiah, the work takes a bitter satisfaction in looking back at his nation’s fall from glory. Chomei describes an age visited by fire, drought, famine and plague. Corpses are piled in the streets of the capital and citizens loot temples and chop up Buddhas for kindling. Noble families have passed into obscurity: ‘Decorously dressed folk/in hats and gaiters,/went from house to house,/frantically begging.’ From his mountain seclusion he recalls a brief spell of collective repentance after a devastating earthquake in 1185:

there was talk
of the vanities of this world,
and people seemed to be rid
of the sinfulness in their hearts.
But days and months went by,
then years,
and no one spoke of it again.

At its height, in the 10th and 11th centuries, Heian Japan existed on a perhaps unmatched plane of aristocratic refinement. Nearly any scene from Murasaki Shikibu’s extraordinary court romance, The Tale of Genji (completed in 1021), gives an idea of the premium placed on aesthetics. Genji, the Casanova-like hero, holds the rank of commander, but not once do we see him bothered with state or military matters. He is instead preoccupied with music recitals, poetry, calligraphy, perfume, fashion, love affairs and an aristocratic form of Buddhism that simultaneously smiles on earthly pleasure while offering a path to bliss after death.

To understand the decline of Heian imperial authority you might think of what happened to Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire. In Japan, the ruling houses attached to the crown had always had difficulty controlling landowners in remote provinces. For a time they had kept these far-flung manors quiet by promising immunity from taxation. But as the court in the capital became more and more insular and rarefied (men were often appointed to crucial posts entirely on the basis of good looks and good deportment), provincial landowners formed militias and staged revolts, joined by bellicose warrior-monks, undaunted by the Buddhist prohibition against taking life. Their raids on the capital had become annual occurrences.

The crown had no standing army, but relied instead on warrior clans from the capital, who were dispatched to snuff out insurrection in return for royal favours and preferential appointments. The outcome was predictable: power shifted from the emperor to the warlord (or shogun), and Japan entered a medieval age in which the country was controlled by feudal landlords with manorial estates (called shoen) protected by private warriors (samurai). This would remain the situation for more than six hundred years. In the 12th century, in the final throes of the Heian period, there was a decades-long civil war between the two most powerful warrior clans, the Heike (also known as Taira) and the Genji (or Minamoto). The end of the conflict, which came with the annihilation of the Heike and the establishment of the unchallenged supremacy of the Genji, is the subject of the Heike monogatari, The Tale of the Heike, newly translated by Royall Tyler.

Tyler is the most prominent translator since Arthur Waley and Edward Seidensticker to take on the Sisyphean task of rendering Japan’s vast classical literature into accessible English. The Tale of the Heike is an especially challenging work for Western audiences. The Tale of Genji, with its eerily Proustian anatomisation of social protocol and matters of the heart, is approachable (Tyler’s 2001 translation is the one to read), but The Tale of the Heike feels much more antique, a military chronicle cobbled together from a mishmash of adventure yarns, religious cautionary tales, folk legends and portraits of heroism.

Early sources say it was written – or, more likely, compiled from existing popular stories – by the monk Yukinaga in the early 13th century, who then taught the blind monk Shobutsu to chant it. The Tale of the Heike became famous as a musical recitation performed by a guild of blind itinerant monks called biwa hoshi (they played a biwa, a lute-like instrument, to accompany their singing). As centuries passed the text was altered and expanded, but it was always treated as a sourcebook for public performance: Tyler’s translation, like his predecessors’ versions, comes from a musical score.

Its basis in oral tradition and status as a great military epic have led many to think of The Tale of the Heike as the Japanese Iliad. But the comparison is misleading. The Tale of the Heike is far more episodic, its dramatis personae larger and more confusing, and its battle scenes relatively infrequent. Better to think of it as akin to Livy’s histories of early Rome, with their mixture of military chronicle and personal narrative, or to a version of the Books of Kings seasoned with the didacticism of Proverbs and the eschatology of Revelation.

What is constant throughout The Tale of the Heike is its nostalgic, often despairing evocation of a dying culture. Its most famous passage concerns the transient nature of worldly renown:

The Jetavana Temple bells
ring the passing of all things.
Twinned sal trees, white in full flower,
declare the great man’s certain fall.
The arrogant do not long endure:
They are like a dream one night in spring.
The bold and brave perish in the end:
They are as dust before the wind.

As Tyler explains in a footnote, the Jetavana Temple bells were rung when a disciple died, and when the Buddha died under a grove of sal trees, their yellow blossoms turned white. It’s a strikingly funereal set of images with which to commence a tale of political and military bravado. But the epic was building on a cultural conception of greatness that had less to do with battlefield glory than with a high-minded acceptance of defeat. The Tale of the Heike is a work of nested, increasingly personal instances of failure: the fall of Heian splendour surrounds the fall of Heike hegemony, which surrounds the fall of the imposing Heike chieftain, Taira no Kiyomori, who ‘held in his hands/at once the realm and the four seas,/and nobody could gainsay him.’ He is presented as the apotheosis of the degenerate ‘latter age’: cruel, despotic, physically brutish and, perhaps worst of all, unmannerly (none of his rustic entourage ‘had learned etiquette/or had any idea how to behave’).

When the tale begins, in 1177, the Heike are basking in victory after two crushing defeats of the Genji in what are known as the Hogen and Heiji Conflicts. Kiyomori could have deposed the weakened emperor and made himself dictator, but instead tries to appropriate the crown’s prestige and waning powers in time-honoured if heavy-handed ways, by working within the anachronistic court system. Other sources recount his attempt to ingratiate himself with the aristocracy by entering a poetry competition, where his submission is judged to be ‘not good’. More cannily, he makes his daughter the consort of the reigning emperor, ensuring that succession will fall to his grandson.

Kiyomori’s nemesis in the imperial court is a tenacious figure called Go-Shirakawa, who had briefly been emperor but abdicated at the age of 31 in order to exert political control through the system known as insei, or ‘cloister government’. Traditionally, the duties of the emperor were largely ceremonial; the actual governing was done by regents who became wealthier than the nominal rulers. Go-Shirakawa’s trick was to abdicate, become a monk and then dominate from behind the scenes. (Not to be outdone in faux holiness, Kiyomori becomes a monk as well.)

Having evaded the regents, Go-Shirakawa, the so-called Cloistered Emperor, becomes embarrassingly subservient to the Heike. So in 1177 he encourages the Shishi-no-tani plot, which comes across in The Tale of the Heike as a rather inept attempt on Kiyomori’s life. The Heike quickly sniff out the rebellion; many of the conspirators are beheaded, some are ‘killed and pickled’. A few high-ranking noblemen are exiled to a distant island with barbarian natives who are ‘dark, oxlike and very hairy’, and there they indulge in poetical teeth-gnashing about their abject fates.

Kiyomori’s impulse is to retaliate against the Cloistered Emperor, but he is moved to leniency by his eloquent son Shigemori, and the two rulers revert to an awkward status quo ante bellum. Shigemori piously argues that disrespect for the throne is tantamount to sacrilege: he adheres to the saying, ‘When ruin threatens the Sovereign’s Way,/The Buddha’s Way collapses first.’ His finest moment is a stirring Shakespearean speech in which he despairs of the difficulty of properly honouring both the emperor and his father, the emperor’s enemy:

O sorrow! Should I exert myself
to escape being unfilial,
at that moment I would become
a treacherous, disloyal subject.

Soon afterward, Shigemori falls fatally ill, and refuses to consult a well-respected foreign doctor because successful treatment would be humiliating to Japanese pride. He is one of the epic’s archetypal heroes, martyred by the perfection of his loyalty.

Shigemori’s death removes the last brake on his father’s ambition. In 1179, Kiyomori marches on the capital at the head of several thousand mounted men and stages a bloodless coup. He dismisses dozens of imperial ministers and forces the abdication of the nominal emperor, installing his infant grandson Antoku on the throne. The Cloistered Emperor is put under a kind of house arrest. ‘The age is ours!’ the Heike exult, setting the stage for Kiyomori’s most outrageous overreach. In 1180, the warlord, ‘a mere commoner’, has the audacity to move the capital from Heian-kyo, where it had been established in 794, to his estate in the coastal city of Fukuhara (near present-day Kobe).

The move proves to be a blunder – the sensitive aristocrats find the raw weather on the coast unbearable and Kiyomori soon succumbs to pressure to return to the old capital. But it is perceived by all as the ultimate sign of End Times, and in some of the book’s most picturesque visions of imperial decay, ‘houses that once up and down the streets/jostled eave to eave in their pride/ day by day crumbled into ruin’.

This is the pinnacle of Heike dominance. Kiyomori commits a few more abominations – worst of all are the burning of an ancient Buddhist temple and the slaughter of thousands of warrior-monks – but he is soon pursued by ‘the murderous demons of transience’ and meets an agonising death:

Water sprayed on him from a bamboo pipe, to give him relief,
recoiled as though from hot stone or iron and never reached him.
What water did touch him turned to fire.
Black smoke filled the room, and flames swirled high in the air.

In his bitter last words, Kiyomori rues that he has not lived to see the severed head of ‘the Izu exile, Yoritomo’. He’s talking about the Genji leader, Minamoto no Yoritomo, and it’s at this point that the Genji rouse themselves and begin their conquest of Japan. Despite the epic’s tendentious message that Kiyomori’s downfall is retribution for his overweening pride, his real mistake is an old-fashioned weakness for granting clemency. After he routed the Genji in the Heiji Conflict and killed the clan leader, Yoshitomo, a noblewoman persuaded him to spare the lives of Yoshitomo’s young sons. Yoritomo has grown up in exile, waiting for the chance to avenge his father’s death.

Yoritomo is a shadowy and remote presence in the story, yet so dispassionately ruthless that he changes his country’s history more radically than a sentimental, backward-glancing figure like Kiyomori ever could. His defeat of the Heike, now led by Kiyomori’s son Munemori, is decisive, but the civil war is drawn out by vicious intra-clan bloodshed. Yoritomo’s method is to send allies to do his fighting; then, when their generals succeed and become celebrated, to contrive excuses to have them killed. ‘A man of power may do little himself, yet gain glory through his retainers,’ a soldier says on the eve of a battle, while Yoritomo is safely ensconced on his estate in Kamakura. It could be the motto of the new feudal age.

‘The Heike felt still caught in ice,/like birds of the Himalayas.’ They are finally destroyed in 1185 after a series of famous battles against Yoritomo’s daredevil half-brother, Yoshitsune. (Yoshitsune, whose story continues beyond The Tale of the Heike, is one of the most renowned figures in Japanese history. His legend arose not only because of his victories but because Yoritomo eventually hounded him into suicide, thus cementing his posterity as a sacrificial hero.) During this drawn-out war come the plagues and famine and natural disasters transcribed with such appalled fascination in the Hojoki. In The Tale of the Heike, the story pauses to recount an enthronement in the capital, which entails the ritual purification of the emperor, amid ornate processions and great feasts. But such ceremonies have now been infested by preening warmongers, and the imperial pomp that surrounds them is described with a hint of irony instead of purely wistful longing.

the common people and the peasants
throughout every province of the land
had suffered Genji depredations
and destruction at Heike hands.
They had abandoned hearth and home
to flee into mountains and forests.
In spring they forgot to till their fields;
in autumn they could harvest nothing.
How, then, was this feast even possible?
And yet it could not be omitted.
Therefore it was followed at least in form.

Tyler has improvised a loosely metred verse form for his translation of a performance text that, created for musical recital is, as he writes, ‘really neither verse nor prose’. Tyler’s version is more inviting than Helen Craig McCullough’s precise but rather gruelling prose translation of 1988, which seems intended for students rather than the general reader. Even so, it doesn’t quite match his earlier translations. He favours a playful, colloquial style of dialogue and description, and in The Tale of Genji this brings down to earth the flights of ethereal poetry and Buddhist pontification in what is essentially a novel of manners. But the slangy touch sounds odd in a historical epic. Lines like ‘That brought it all home to me’ and ‘Hey, you! Now what do you have to say?’ make the characters seem curiously burlesque even if you sense that they are supposed to be imposing or heroic.

The translation is at its richest in the tale’s final sections, which recount how Yoritomo, unlike his vilified counterpart Kiyomori, spares no one from his rival clan, not even the six-year-old Emperor Antoku, who drowns in the arms of his grandmother during the conclusive sea battle of Dan-no-ura. (The Cloistered Emperor, Go-Shirakawa, is by this point a peripheral figure, and Yoritomo’s few deferential gestures to him are laced with sarcasm.) As the Heike nobles face their destruction and renounce what is felicitously called the ‘dewdrop life’, the tale suddenly overflows with sympathy for them.

Removing yourself to a monastery is always considered a mark of urbane sagacity: ‘Life is a dream, an illusion –/why then suffer while we live/any distasteful company?’ one wise young man says. But for the doomed Heike nothing is more ennobling than suicide. One episode recounts the demise of Koremori, Kiyomori’s grandson and the commander of the defeated Heike forces. Koremori has left his wife and children to make a pilgrimage to the shrine at the spectacular Nachi waterfall. A monk spies him and recalls Koremori’s youthful beauty, when he was honoured by the sovereign and admired by the palace women. (‘Talk about life’s vicissitudes!’ the monk says.)

After completing his pilgrimage, Koremori carves a suicide note into the trunk of a pine tree and rows a boat out to sea. There, as he thinks of his family, his courage falters; fortunately, he has with him a compassionate holy man to provide the needed motivation:

You will believe that you are sinking
into the depths of the blue ocean
but really will mount the purple cloud.
Once enlightenment dawns for you
and you are free in buddhahood,
you will return to your home in this world
to guide your wife and your children.

The holy man instructs Koremori to repeat the name of the Buddha Amida and then to do his duty:

Trusting his true spiritual friend,
Koremori righted his error,
faced the west, palms pressed together,
one hundred times called out the Name,
and with a last ‘Hail!’ plunged into the sea.

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