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This Week in Anime
Is The Heike Story Accessible for Newcomers?

by Jean-Karlo Lemus & Monique Thomas,

Science SARU and Naoko Yamada's retelling of a 12th century story with a supernatural twist. It follows the large Taira clan, the factions within, and the conflicts as they vie to maintain political relevancy. The story is well-known within Japan, but can newbies still follow along?

This series is streaming on Funimation

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @mouse_inhouse @NickyEnchilada @vestenet

Hey, Jean-Karlo! Say, I have a question for you. Tell me, if you were able to see into the future, what would you see?

I feel like this is a trick question and I'm supposed to say something else like "The life and times of feudal Japan's politicians scrambling amongst each other for power amidst the changing times."
No, but I think you're correct that no matter what lies ahead, there's always going to be more anime! I asked about the future, but the present anime is rooted firmly in the past. The Heike Story is an adaption of a well-known 12th century epic detailing the events of a conflict between two great Japanese clans. It's told through the eyes of a young girl named Biwa, who can miraculously see glimpses of the future, and therefore the tragedy set to befall them.
The Heike Story comes to us from studio Science SARU, who have been no strangers to unique and thought-provoking shows, including the exploration of inner darkness that was DEVILMAN crybaby. It's also... a lot. It's like watching one of those period piece dramas without knowing what an England is.
Also notably, Heike is directed by the well-loved Naoko Yamada. She gained quite a following for her pristine dramatic and heartfelt direction at Kyoto Animation, so to see her leave for such a prestigious classical tale with a studio known for breaking the mold of animation is really something! And it shows, Heike is flat gorgeous.
Yeah, if we gotta start somewhere, may as well start there: The Heike Story is easily one of the best-looking shows this season. Veering from luscious abodes to scenes emulating traditional Japanese paintings, The Heike Story gives you a lot to look at—even if it is a bloodied battlefield.

It might even be one of the best looking shows of this year, this decade, and maybe even this century? Your pick. Obviously I'm exaggerating, but it really feels a cut above the rest for serialized anime and I'd compare it more to the quality of a film or another kind of highly constructed piece of mastery in both the deliberation of its story and its visuals. Absorbing it with the eyes alone is a near-transcendent experience.
You're gonna be happy it's so pretty, though, because The Heike Story is also the driest thing you'll watch all year. There is a supernatural twist to the story courtesy of Biwa being able to see the future, but at the end this is still a story about the rumblings of a noble Japanese family as they clash heads with the Japanese empire in the Heian period. You gotta want to watch such a deeply political show.
I think like the best political dramas though, the attention to detail in the shot composition and body language keep it from being a bunch of talking (sometimes bald) heads, and it tries hard to inject the conflict with a lot of humanity for the figures in it so it doesn't feel the same as falling asleep during history class.
Definitely. The personal interplay here is what really keeps this show interesting. I can only imagine that's what keeps Downton Abbey engaging to folks. I dunno what a Downton Abbey is, I don't have an England.
The show is mostly told from the perspective of yet another alter ego of famed Five-Star Assassin servant Aoi Yuuki: Biwa. Totally not a sake-swilling oni this time around, she seemingly spent time as a wandering lute player with her father, who is publicly and unceremoniously executed by the Heike after Biwa speaks ill of them as they punish some other serf.

Biwa was born with an eye that grants her vision of the future; in her grief, she sees a future where the Heike are no more. As the show's Greek chorus points out, "all existence is impermanent" and all that flourishes must eventually fall.

Also, I'm not kidding about this being Aoi Yuuki; later in the show, they even point out Biwa hasn't grown an inch in over six years. So, Araki's one of the fae, Keanu Reeves is a vampire, and Aoi Yuuki is a prescient oni who is also sometimes a spider. Gotcha.
I'm also going to note that even though the Genpei War was a real event, the version in The Heike Story is a deeply dramatized and moralized tale about the dangers of power. Its heavily Buddhist messages about the nature of karma are one of the reasons it's harrowing enough to be adapted and performed many times throughout centuries. When performed, it's traditionally narrated by blind biwa players like the one we see Biwa, the character, evolve into. Therefore, The Heike Story isn't only about the events themselves but it becomes a story about how the events we are watching in front of us are to be narrated in the future (our present).

Biwa herself often feels more like an observer of the events, but that doesn't make her distant. After her father is killed by the Heike's men, she is taken in by the Heike's Lord Sugemori, who also has magical heterochromia that allows him to view specters of the afterlife. She becomes deeply integrated with their family and as the audience we're allowed to have a close-up and personal view of their lives. Even the opening theme displays a Polaroid-esque view of the families with an upbeat song, like a memory.
These moments between Biwa and Sugemori's family quickly become the best part of the show. They never overstay their welcome, so the affair never becomes tawdry or cloying, but Biwa finds herself accepted into family. She forms an especially close bond with Sugemori himself, as well as his younger sister Tokuko. Of course, this all precedes great tragedy: while Biwa holds Sugemori no ill will, she knows the Heike will fall, and no sooner does she meet Tokuko does Biwa foresee her watery end.
Well Sugemori is not blind to the Heike's fate. He envisions as much himself with his own eye. He feels haunted both literally and emotionally. Taking Biwa in was not only an act of kindness and atonement but a method of insurance. But can knowledge be enough to stop the powers that be?

Some of which include a very stubborn and bald old man, Sugemori's father, Kiyomori, former head of the clan before swearing himself to monkhood. He basically serves as the central antagonist. He will stop at nothing when it comes to making sure the Heike have total control over the whole country.
Even with the knowledge that bad things are sure to come, Sugemori finds himself surrounded by politicians like his father who are just itching to start a war. The Heike and the families invested in them have grown almost too powerful, and are constantly on the verge of starting wars with local warrior monks—or even the Emperor's forces. It's all Sugemori can do to keep things from becoming a bloodfest. Between trying to save face, trying to maintain loyalty to his Emperor, and trying to maintain his filial duties to his family, Sugemori is stretched quite thin.

Even something as petty as beating up one of Kiyomori's sons, Sukemori, for being rude to one of the Emperor's regents becomes fuel for what will become this all-out war. Instead of graciously apologizing like Sugemori suggests, Kiyomori sends 300 men against 10. It's one of the prime examples of the Taira clan being a bunch of bullies and fosters animosity from the other clans.

Oh yeah, besides Sugemori, Biwa suddenly gains three brothers. Koremori, Sukemori, and Arimori. Who all have minor importance but I think it's another contributing factor to making Biwa feel like she's part of the family.

I really hope you guys brought a notebook or at least a piece of paper to keep track of the family tree!
Me, I'm unlucky enough to be bad with faces because there are two creepy, scummy old guys in this series and I could hardly tell them apart!
And there's even more characters we haven't gotten to yet since there's a lot of court drama, but if you remember any old guy, let it be Kiyomori, as he's the one trying to play everyone into his hands.

Even Tokuko laments that he treats everyone like pawns, even her while she stares in the face of her own arranged marriage to a 10-year-old at the age of 16. Biwa dresses as a boy throughout most of the series and that's because life for women in this time was Not Fun!
The show does take the view of all of this being Not Okay™, especially since it's all quite explicitly done to broker power and ensure heirs.

It acknowledges that it's a man's world, but I do really enjoy the conversations Biwa has with Tokuko or other women. I enjoy the story of the shirabyoshi, a group of female performers who dress like men. Biwa's mother was supposedly a shirabyoshi but she has never met her. She's able to form a kinship with Gio, who was once favored by Kiyomori before he became enamored with another former performer. Gio has no choice but to serve him because she's powerless.

She becomes a sisterly figure to Biwa before she is banished. The outcome where her, her sister, her mother, and the other performer all become nuns is bittersweet but also very liberating because they no longer have to obey Kiyomori's whims and can instead enjoy their lives in sisterhood.

Which is probably the most optimistic outcome we're going to get out of this story! It shows how narrative lenses influences how charitable we feel towards these women. Swearing off your womanhood as a punishment isn't typically viewed as a happy ending.
It's supposed to be, but if it's a fate you chose for yourself after a life of servitude, is it all that bad? I can't answer that, but it's evident Gio is finally happy thanks to her decision. And once she peers into the future, even Biwa is satisfied with how things turn out for Gio.

Meeting Gio also gives us some tantalizing clues about Biwa's origins; Biwa's father never even told Biwa her real name, nor did he tell her anything about her mother. She might have been a shirabyoshi, hence why Biwa was so keen on meeting Gio in the first place, but that lead evidently goes nowhere. As the series goes on, we learn precious little about Biwa, and while the show itself is concerned with other matters it very pointedly doesn't want us forgetting that Biwa fits into the bigger picture.
We don't get much more but it gives Biwa some hope about a potential future, where before she was largely afraid of it. Her real father told her that peering with her eye would only lead to bad things so it's generally something she avoided until now. While she still has great fears, it's an event that assuages them, if only a little.

I also believe that the stuff involving Biwa's mom has the potential to come back around. But there's only five episodes out so who knows! One thing I will say is that this show is incredibly dense. Even by episode 3, I felt more happened than most SEASONS of other shows.
It doesn't help that there are time skips; by episode 3, six years have gone by in-universe. Sugemori's children are all older, Tokuko is actively trying to conceive with her husband, Biwa is still the same height (because Aoi Yuuki needs a stepladder to reach five-foot-nothing) and people have been exiled and unexiled in the time since.
By that time, Kiyomori has also built a property on the ocean as a means of gaining a strategic foothold.

There's also a lot of gossip about illegitimacies, affairs, and who deserves to own the right of the household and its properties. While it can be idle chatter, it's another way status affects each and every one of these characters' interior lives. Everyone likes to jab Sugemori about being an illegit first son. And Tokuko has to live with the fact that the emperor is cheating and yet is still being pressured to bear the next in line for the throne by everyone around her.

And they sing songs about it! The songs are a real hoot.
Tokuko suffers a lot in this series. Later on, it's established that she did eventually come around and fell in love with her arranged husband, only for him to run deeper into the arms of his mistress after a battle Sugemori's family initiated. Tokuko can only stand and watch as her husband sires a second child with his mistress.
And it's not even the same mistress as before! What a kick in the teeth.
Meanwhile, Sugemori finds himself unable to deal with the constant backstabbings his family forces him to sit through. The guy goes to a temple and prays for his life to be shortened so he doesn't have to deal with it all. Biwa can only watch as the guy's soul just sputters out in front of her.

This was also after he was trying hard to mend things so Tokuko could have a successful birth unbothered by spirits he felt he could've prevented in the first place. The birth ends up being a success, but all Kiyomori cares about is how to use his own grandson to leverage more power for himself. This decision clearly won't end well as more karma strikes other members of the family and the commoners suffer from natural disasters while he does nothing to help them.

Quickly, Sugemori falls ill, and eventually passes. Biwa gets to watch herself lose her father a second time. Biwa plays for him and it's beautiful. She once again laments her powerlessness in the face of death. But as a payment, she gains Sugemori's right eye.

It's a poignant moment, demonstrating the influence people can have on our lives even once they're gone. It also grants Biwa the ability to see and speak to the dead, much like Sugemori could.
I'm gonna take a step out to say the show's music is another poignant factor. It doesn't just use music based on the time period either, the soundtrack contains rock, digital soundscapes, and other modern fare on top of the power notes of Biwa's strings and various songs. The moments of silence are also utilized incredibly well.
That struck me as well! You would have expected a period piece like this to stick to traditional music, but the occasional bits of anachronistic rock and roll work really well.
I love the synth-heavy ED for this reason too! "Unified Perspective" shows Biwa switching between the view of her two selves. Coincidentally, I view Biwa's inheritance of Sugemori's power as another form of her gaining "perspective." While before she could see the future, she had difficulty viewing the past and the present and so now she has that other layer to guide her.
The guidance cuts like a knife. Remembering how Biwa ended up with Sugemori over her hatred of the Heike, she asks his ghost if he was able to forgive the people that led him to his end. His answer was, as the kids say, a real "bruh" moment.

I know I keep saying this about certain anime, but it's one thing to hear or read about it, and it's another thing to take a story and experience it. I think even if you do or don't know the story, or don't care about the politics of a bunch of dead lords, the raw emotions that come out in those moments will get you. This is a rare anime that actually brought me to tears while watching it.
The Heike Story was a much more challenging show for me, but not an unpleasant one. The politicking, the names, and the two scummy bald guys threw me off. I struggled to keep up with them. But the family moments between Sugemori's kin and Biwa were what engrossed me and seeing how the outside world chips away at what little they have definitely hits you. Biwa herself clings to this memory of Sugemori's sons playing together at the shore—meanwhile, she constantly sees Tokuko and her son drowning in the ocean. What with its politicking, I can see The Heike Story being a tough sell, but I live for tough sells like these. It's beautiful, not just visually but emotionally. And as much as it would break my heart, I'd love to see where it ends.
We also don't know if it'll end all bad! Part of the thing about the future is that while you may predict it, it's impossible to view all of it cohesively like we can when we view history. More importantly, we take the events of history and start filling the gaps with our own lessons in order to create an actual story. I wouldn't suggest people watch a retelling of an event if it wasn't also great at storytelling and re-contextualizing that story into something audiences can enjoy today.

The Heike Story is a beautiful series. I hesitate to call it the best of the season, but it's definitely up there. This is another show I deeply hope finds a wider audience. This series could touch a lot of fans, I know it.
The Heike Story is an instant classic and I can count the number of those on my hands compared to the dozens of shows that come out each season. It's why I enjoy digging out the jewels from the chafe every week. Thinking about what anime will stand the test of time is one of my reasons for living. There's always someone out there that's going to love this anime but hasn't found it yet. Maybe it won't be this season, this year, or even this decade before this show gets its proper dues. But for those reading this today, I hope that what we said helped you love this show a little more.

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