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Essay: An Analysis of Japan's Epic Tale of the Heike and its Key Themes

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  • Reading time: 3 minutes
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  • Published: 1 February 2018*
  • File format: Text
  • Words: 798 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 4 (approx)

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Considered to be Japan’s Iliad, the Tale of the Heike is a theatrical portrayal of the famous clash between the Heike and Genji clans, illustrating the day to day struggles they as medieval, aristocratic, samurais experienced. As readers of this text we become educated on the life and times of these Japanese people involved in the Genpei war. This review essay will provide an analysis of this historic epic, and incorporate the key themes featured throughout such as Buddhism, and the “way of the warrior.”

There is no one author of this text, as it is composed of various versions of oral teachings by the biwa hōshi, more commonly known as “lute priests.” As the majority of epics tend to do, these war tales were embellished to capture the attention of its readers but are in fact based on true events. The Tales of the Heike transport us back to the year 1100, where its primary focus is on the rise and fall of the Heike clan. We begin with the passing of Provincial Governor Tadamori whose eldest son and our main character Kiyomori has just assumed the role of his late father. Under his leadership on the imperial throne, representatives of the provincial governments began to shift alliances, and create uprisings, causing a divide. Kiyomori, more often than not, defended the emperor. Politically speaking, this put Kiyomori at an advantage, having the opportunity to increase rank within the governing body. This part of the story is significant not just because the Heike begin to rise to power, which is what I referred to as a part of the primary focus of this epic, but because this creates the plot for which the Genji clan devise their revenge. From this point, Kyomori continues to gain power and “begins to act with unusual ruthlessness, creating many enemies in the process.” There is a quote from the book that sums this “ruthlessness” perfectly, stating “…some of the Genji were exiled and others were dead; and the Heike flourished unrivaled, seemingly secure for ages to come.” This very quote, his behavior, is foreshadowing to our first theme in this epic which is the Buddhist law of impermanence. The belief that all things, no exceptions, are subject to decay and will eventually. Kyomori clearly does not understand this at this moment in time.

With his rapid increase in power, Kyomori follows in his father’s tradition and begins to appoint his sons to various powerful positions in the government. Obsessed with his power, he goes even further to marrying off his daughters so that they may continue spreading the rule of the Heike clan. Aside from the close knit family business he had created, Kyomori ordered individuals to act as his eyes and ears, permitting them to arrest all who spoke ill of the Heike clan. The early beginnings of a dictatorship perhaps? This is best described by the book itself, “other men obeyed his commands as grass bends before the wind; people everywhere looked to him for aid as soil welcomes moistening rain.”

Not all saw what Kyomori had been seeing. Kyomori was blinded by power and domination. His eldest son however, Shigemori, was not. He did not live up to “like father like son.” Shigemori was “virtuous and thoughtful” and understood very well the dangerous path his father was taking their followers down. He knew it would not end well. During the unraveling of another assassination plot, Kiyomori had sentenced the individual to have his hand cut off. Shigemori intervened, essentially begging his father to not act because of the Buddhist law dharma. “It is my belief” says Shigemori, “that a man’s good or evil deeds are inherited by his descendants. It is also said that the accumulation of good deeds brings happiness, while sorrow waits at the gate of him who commits evil.” In all, dharma is a Buddhist law which prophesizes when one commits an act of evil in the present, evil will fall upon one’s future generations. This is why Shigemori is asking his father to refrain, because he understands that his father’s ruthless actions will eventually backfire on the Heike clan. Shigemori’s intervention is just another example of how Buddhism is such a key theme in this epic, and how it determines their way of life. This is not a one-time deal for Shigemori though. Shigemori had been considered, up until his death, as the wisest and most competent councilor for Kiyomori, frequently citing Buddhist teaching to persuade his father not to commit some heinous act. After his passing, many wondered what would happen next. “We have had peace only because Shigemori has corrected and tempered Kiyomori’s high-handed ways. What is going to happen in this country from now on?”

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