The "Tales of the Heike" (Heike Monogatari) is a collection of episodic stories related to the rise and downfall of the Taira clan in twelfth century Kyoto.
Specifically, "Heike Monogatari" narrates the events surrounding the Gempei Wars of 1181-1185, in which an alliance of clans led by the Minamoto drove the once mighty Taira and their allies from the capital, chasing them as far as the southern island of Kyushu in an attempt to exterminate every last member of the clan.
The "Tales of the Heike" seems to have been compiled piecemeal, as stories told about the Gempei battles were polished and elaborated, and exists in several versions.
The most famous, called the "Kakuichi Book", was intended for musical recitation, usually by blind biwa playing priests, to appease the spirits of the slain Taira. Other versions, some far more elaborate, were intended for reading rather than recitation, as "factual" histories of the Gempei Wars.
The heroic and tragic stories of these battles later became source material for noh, joruri and kabuki, as well as for a great many woodblock prints in the Tokugawa Period. In fact, almost all of the major scenes from the "Tales of Heike", as well as stories from related works, such as biography of Yoshitsune (Gikeiki), have been depicted in ukiyo-e prints.
For the sake of this article, I will hold strictly to the stories of the Kakuichi Book, introducing them in order by chapter and section, and saving "Heike lore" for a separate piece.
English readers can find the original stories for these prints by chapter and section title in Helen Craig McCullough's excellent translation, The Tale of the Heike (Stanford University Press, 1988). I will also reference B.F. Robinson's catalogue and index of Kuniyoshi's warrior prints where applicable.
The wicked selfishness of the Taira leader Kiyomori is shown through the story of the dancing girls he keeps as consorts. Gio, a shirabyoshi dancer, is his chosen favorite, and he installs her in his mansion and cares for her and her family.
When another, younger dancer named Hotoke comes to Kyoto and becomes the talk of the town, Kiyomori initially ignores her, rejecting her when she attempts to visit and dance for him.
Gio, however, insists that Kiyomori should see the new phenomenon. As soon as he does, he is immediately smitten, heartlessly dismissing Gio and installing Hotoke in her place. Gio passes some months in misery, then decides to become a nun.
One evening some time later, there is a knock on the door of her hut, and she opens it to find Hotoke, who has also shaved her head and became a nun, convinced of the uncertainty of her lot in life.
The beautiful shirabyoshi dancers Gio and Hotoke appear in many woodblock prints of the nineteenth century. Kuniyoshi depicted them both in series 20 and 46, and also Gio in 30.1, Hotoke in 15.2 and 33.2. Shirabyoshi dancers can be noted by the male clothing they wear to perform: high caps, and white over robes, often with a short sword and scabbard.
Bishop Shunkan and two fellow conspirators against the Taira have been exiled to the hellish island Kikaigashima. There, his fellow conspirators perform mock pilgrimages, praying for salvation, but Shunkan does not join them.
One day, a ship unexpectedly appears on the island, and a messenger emerges, bearing an official statement of pardon. The pardon only contains two names, however, not Shunkan's.
Shunkan searches the statement in desperation for his name, certain there must be a mistake. He pleads with the messenger and his friends to take him too, but all of his efforts are in vain.
He is pushed from the ship when he tries to board, and lies on the sand, kicking his feet like a distraught child, as the ship and his only company on the island disappears over the horizon. Shunkan lies there all night and into the next day, hopeful, but the ship does not return.
Images of Shunkan are frequently found in kabuki prints and series, especially those of the Utagawa School.
The first serious resistance to the tyranny of the Taira family comes from Crown Prince Mochihito, who at the urging of the Minamoto hero Yorimasa rebels in 1180. Mochihito gains the support of the monks of Miidera Temple, but even still his army is too small to match the mighty Taira, and the rebellion is crushed.
Nevertheless, Mochihito's forces fight valiantly to the end, including the soldier-monk Jomyo, who single-handedly takes command of the Uji Bridge, reduced now to its scaffolding, leaping nimbly about and killing dozens of Taira soldiers before having to retreat, wounded by some sixty arrows.
Yorimasa, also wounded, takes his own life, falling on his sword, and Prince Mochihito is killed, just before 7000 Nara monks can arrive to assist him, thus ending the rebellion. A subsequent section eulogizes Yorimasa, telling of his great exploit in shooting down the Nue, a supernatural flying creature who had been nightly harassing the emperor.
Yorimasa's famous slaying of the nue, a griffin-like monster whose body was imagined as a composite of various animals, was often depicted in warrior prints, and there are images of this scene by Shuntei, Sadahide and Kuniyoshi (T7, T112, S74.72).
It also figures in one scene from Yoshitoshi's 100 Phases of the Moon, drawn from the point of view of the Nue. Kuniyoshi also designed at least two prints depicting the exploits of the monk Jomyo.
Mongaku, the fiery priest who appears multiple times in the "Tales of the Heike", was originally a warrior named Endo Morito. Falling in love with his married cousin, he pestered her to commit adultery with him, and when she refused, threatened the life of her mother.
His cousin finally agreed to sleep with him, if he would first kill her husband. But after plotting a night murder with Morito, the wife took her husband's place in bed, and was killed by Morito, who in the darkness took her to be the husband.
In remorse for his evil ways, Morito entered the priesthood, and undertook a tremendous series of painful penances, including a twenty-one day prayer session under a freezing waterfall, which he survived only with divine aid. Later, he convinces Yoritomo to rebel against the Taira, who had slain his father.
Kuniyoshi designed numerous portraits of Mongaku, including a striking vertical triptych of his austerities below the Nachi waterfall (T253-see also S93-4, both reproduced in color in Robinson.) Yoshitoshi also admired the spirit of this fierce priest, and produced several images of him.
Kiyomori, the leader of the Taira clan at the beginning of the Gempei War, is described as a ruthless, emotional tyrant, hungry for power and willing to take any means to crush his enemies and gain it. His evil deeds finally begin to catch up with him, however, and he suffers from terrible, unrelenting fevers.
Ultimately, his body is so hot that no one can stand to come near him, and he boils the bath water when placed into it. After his wife dreams that a flaming carriage has come from Hell for Kiyomori, he falls into convulsions and dies.
Images of the Kiyomori in ukiyo-e often conflate Kiyomori's death experience, his wife's dream, and events from V:3 "Strange Occurrences". Famous images by Hiroshige Ando and Chikanobu, among others, show Kiyomori looking out into his garden and seeing skulls (V:3). Although in the "Tales of Heike" this event is entirely supernatural, Hiroshige gives it a psychological reading by having Kiyomori see skulls in the shapes of objects under freshly fallen snow.
One of Yoshitoshi's most imaginative and disturbing prints shows Kiyomori's horrible fever dreams, with the guardians of hell coming to claim him.
Rewards, both monetary and honorary, were given in the Gempei battles to soldiers who excelled, either by killing a high-ranking opponent or by being the first to charge into enemy lines.
The famous crossing of the Uji River, in which two brave Minamoto warriors on horseback charge into the high waters, competing to be the first to reach the Taira on the opposite banks, has been depicted by several of the warrior print artists.
Most notable is Kuniyoshi, who devoted six triptychs to the subject (T18, T62, T191, T217, T225, T334), while his pupils made yet others.
The death of Kiso Yoshinaka, the Minamoto General who sought to take the leading role in his clan, which quickly turned on him, is notable for the figure by Yoshinaka's side, who defends him almost to the end: Tomoe Gozen, the woman warrior.
Although she appears only briefly in the "Tales", Tomoe's impression is indelible, as she gallops up to a warrior famed for his strength, grapples with him, pins him and twists off his head. Soon after she leaves, however, Yoshinaka is slain, and the Minamoto force, now commanded by Yoshitsune and Noriyori, soon turn their attention back to the Taira, who have fled to Ichinotani.
Not surprisingly, print portraits of Tomoe Gozen herself far outnumber those of her master Kiso Yoshinaka. Kuniyoshi, who was attracted to powerful women as subjects, made at least ten portraits of her, as well as almost as many triptychs in which she appears (S7.4, S20.24, S22.20, S29.10, S30.5, S31.22, S32.9, S46.15, S69.1, S76.3, T25, T43, T60, T95, T116, T146, T265, T315).
One of the most heavily depicted scenes from the Heike Monogatari, in both actor and kabuki prints, concerns the death of Taira Atsumori at the hands of the Eastern warrior Kumagae no Naozane.
Kumagae is wandering the shores after the routing of the Taira, looking for an enemy general he can fight to gain reward. He spots Atsumori on horseback, running into the sea after the fleeing Taira ships, and calls him back to grapple.
The fierce warrior Kumagae soon has the better of the young Atsumori, but removing his helmet to strike the killing blow, he sees a child with a gentle, powdered face. Thinking of his own child of the same age, he hesitates to kill Atsumori, but Atsumori urges him to do his duty.
Kumagae is about to spare Atsumori, when other Minamoto riders begin riding up, and Kumagae realizes he must commit the deed. Promising to pray for Atsumori, he beheads him, and later, stricken with remorse, becomes a priest.
Images of Atsumori are among the earliest warrior prints. Harunobu made several, including a rare image of Atsumori saying farewell to his lover before going to battle, and others that reverse the typical positions of Kumagae and Atsumori. The death of Atsumori was also an important kabuki scene, and there are numerous prints of actors as Kumagae and Atsumori.
Less attention was paid to Atsumori in later warrior prints, though Kuniyoshi did make one triptych based upon the theme (66).
A Taira ship draws near the shore where the Minamoto forces are massing. A beautiful court woman emerges, and raising a red fan in the prow, invites the Minamoto to shoot at it.
The Minamoto decide that it is surely a trap to entice some of their best men within range of attack from the ship, and rather than approaching, ask their best archer, Nasu no Yoichi, to shoot it down from the beach.
Though he doubts his ability to hit such a small object at a range of several hundred feet, Nasu no Yoichi determines to kill himself if he misses. He says a prayer to Hachiman, the God of war, and lets the arrow fly-a direct hit. Even the Taira must applaud him, though it is a sign that their doom is coming.
By way of contrast, in the next section, Yoshitsune's bow is torn from him as he chases Taira warriors into the sea on horseback. Yoshitsune, in stiff and heavy armor that would make it impossible for him to swim, risks his life to retrieve the bow, and is scolded for his rashness by several veteran warriors.
Yoshitsune explains: it wasn't for the value of the bow that he took such a foolhardy chance, but rather to avoid shame. For if anyone else had retrieved it, the weakness of his weapon would have been revealed.
Nasu no Yoichi's feat of archery is the subject for some of the earliest warrior prints, dating to the early eighteenth century. Perhaps because he was such a popular subject in early prints, fewer were made of him at the end of the Tokugawa Period.
Kuniyoshi made only a single print of him (T256). The humorous bow retrieval of Yoshitsune, by contrast, was the subject of two Kuniyoshi triptychs (T221, T338)
The Taira make their final stand at Dan-no-Ura, vastly outnumbered by Minamoto ships but believing themselves superior in naval ability to the Eastern warriors. Things go well for them at first, but a key defection gives the Minamoto knowledge of where the Taira commanders, in disguise, are stationed.
Various supernatural signs show that the end is coming for the Taira, and the Minamoto overrun their ships. Fearing the worst, the grandmother of the Emperor Antoku (Kiyomori's widow) leaps into the sea with her young charge, where both drown.
The boats of the Taira and Minamoto have inspired some grand imaginative leaps on the part of ukiyo-e artists, particularly Kuniyoshi and his school, who designed triptychs showing the full length of enormous, multi-decked ocean liners, often with decorative designs on them.
The important characters in the final battle, including the child emperor, appear in these works on the top deck, identified by name.
The demise of the Taira is certain, but the great warriors among them continue to fight to the very end. Among them is Noritsune, who attempts to find the Minamoto head general, Yoshitsune, slaying anyone who gets in his way.
At last he discovers Yoshitsune's boat, but the latter, seeing the fierce Noritsune, makes a nimble leap into a neighboring boat and escapes. Noritsune then grapples with three powerful retainers, taking them with him to the bottom of the sea.
While Yoshitsune's leap is very famous and has been depicted in numerous prints from the late eighteenth century on. Noritsune also became a popular subject in the nineteenth century. Kuniyoshi made some nine works on him, and his pupils followed.
At this point, readers familiar with some of the more fantastic scenes related to the "Tales of the Heike" may well be wondering: "Where is Benkei? What about the exploits of Yoshitsune? And the ghosts of the Taira, led by Tomomori?"
For those who have encountered the heroic myths of Yoshitsune, the actual "Tales of the Heike" may come as something of a disappointment, for he is depicted therein as a brave, but utterly pragmatic general, far from the dashing, romantic figure of legend.
Like the Taira themselves, Yoshitsune takes on grandeur not when he is a victorious leader, but only when his story turns tragic.
In the years after his death, at the command of his wily brother who stayed in Kamakura while Yoshitsune fought the Taira, Yoshitsune, like the Taira, became the subject of many legends and fantastic tales, which formed the basis for other literary fictions and dramas.
These will be the subject of the next article, on the lore of the "Tales of the Heike".
Edited and supplemented by Dieter Wanczura
Author: Dieter Wanczura