The Heike Story
Episodes 1-6

by Rebecca Silverman,

How would you rate episode 1 of
The Heike Story ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
The Heike Story ?

How would you rate episode 3 of
The Heike Story ?

How would you rate episode 4 of
The Heike Story ?

How would you rate episode 5 of
The Heike Story ?

How would you rate episode 6 of
The Heike Story ?

Although you don't technically need to have read the source material for The Tale of the Heike, even a single episode can leave you feeling a bit lost if you're not familiar with the original epic. In part that may be due to an assumption that Japanese viewers would be at least partially acquainted with the book; it's a bit like how many native English speakers know the plot of, for example, Romeo and Juliet even if they somehow escaped reading the play in school. But even knowing the plot and characters isn't necessarily a key here, because there are simply so many factors at play – in fact, the first time I read the book I was shocked that the whole thing took place during the lifetime of one single woman.

That woman, in the book, isn't Biwa – our point-of-view character is anime-original, brought in to give us a single perspective to follow without having to tamper with the historical figures too much. (The woman in the text is Tokuko, but she's not present in every chapter.) Biwa gives us an entry into the complex tale, and she also ties the anime to performed versions of Heike Monogatari over the centuries, because biwa players are known to have been part of its legacy in terms of keeping the story alive. In his excellent translation of the novel, Royall Tyler notes that “biwa monks,” biwa (lute) players dressed in monkish robes, helped to keep it going, and that's presumably where the anime came up with Biwa herself. Dressed as a boy by a father trying to protect her in their life on the road, Biwa comes into the care of Taira no Shigemori when his father Kiyomori's soldiers kill Biwa's dad. This gives us a quick, easy snapshot of the difference between Kiyomori and Shigemori that is borne out over the course of the episodes that have thus far aired (well, at least until Shigemori's death in episode four): Kiyomori is all anger and violence while Shigemori is reasoned and thoughtful.

While it'd be a bit of a stretch to call Kiyomori the villain (as in, the only or primary one) in the text, in the anime he's definitely being cast in that light. And honestly, it does make a lot of sense – Kiyomori is ambitious and will do anything to make his goals come to fruition, no matter what that entails. He very much believes that might makes right, and he despairs of his son Shigemori, who rouses his troops with reminders that the word for peace (hei) can be found throughout their era and that that is therefore what they should be fighting for. Over the course of these six episodes, Kiyomori kills, humiliates, and exiles numerous people for what is essentially the crime of crossing him; he even endangers the life of Shigemori's son Sukemori in his thirst to show how powerful the Heike are. It's hardly a stretch that when he summons Biwa in episode six Sukemori and his older brother Koremori insist on going with her, because Kiyomori is capable of doing anything to her. (Happily, he just wants her to play her biwa.) It's not so much that Kiyomori is a master manipulator as he's a war-mongering narcissist, utterly secure in his belief that things should go the way he wants them to, no matter the cost.

And that cost is high. Shigemori isn't the only person who dies in his father's blind pursuit of power, although his death is because he essentially asks the gods to kill him if (and before) his father's actions bring about the downfall of their family. His death is symbolic not only of the last potential fetters on Kiyomori's actions, but also of what will inevitably come for the Heike as a whole: an ignominious fall, brought by Kiyomori's ambitions. We see this foreshadowed in other episodes as well, and not even those that make use of Biwa's foreseeing eye; when Tokuko, married to the young Emperor Takakura by her father (yes, Kiyomori again), is suffering during her pregnancy, it's because she's being haunted by the ghosts of men killed at Kiyomori's behest or due to his actions. She survives to give birth to her son, but that's by no means a certainty. The ghosts, in seeking to harm Tokuko and her unborn child, are actually punishing Kiyomori rather than Tokuko, though – because if she dies before or in childbirth with the baby, Kiyomori doesn't get his emperor of Heike blood.

Speaking of emperors, you may have noticed and been confused by there being not one, not two, but three separate men referred to by the title across these six episodes. That's a major fault of the Funimation translation – in Tyler's translation, we have “the cloistered emperor” (Go-Shirakawa; he retired and took Buddhist vows), “the retired emperor” (Tokuko's husband Takakura, who abdicates in episode five), and then the reigning emperor, Antoku, Tokuko's three-year-old son. Since a toddler obviously can't rule despite what many toddlers think, there must be a regent. Anyone want to guess who would just love to volunteer, even unofficially…?

Despite all of the horrors Biwa witnesses, from the violent death of her father to the lonely death of her foster-father Shigemori and the start of her foster-brother Koremori's downward slide in episode six when he's branded a coward, there is a beauty to be found in this story. This is something that the anime does a particularly good job with, both in the basic artwork, which isn't classically anime pretty but still beautiful, especially in the death's head that comes to Kiyomori in his nightmares (more foreshadowing, naturally) and the way that flowers falling are used to symbolize various forms of death. The flashforwards to who I assume is an old(er) Biwa singing the stories she bore witness to make up some of the most striking imagery in the series as well, as does the simple moment in the opening theme when the hand holding Biwa's slips out of her grasp and she uses it to cover her eye.

What she sees is now what we're watching. It may still be a bit of a confusing story to follow, but it's also one that has survived this many centuries for a reason.


The Heike Story is currently streaming on Funimation.

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