One hundred and fifty years after the turn of time’s hourglass, BC to AD, the Chinese were in the midst of a major dynasty change. A time called the “Three Kingdoms”, the period was later epitomized as the perfect example of how dynasties vacillate between unity, fragmentation, and unity once again. Centuries later the history was published, including a romanticized version of events called simply The Three Kingdoms. Japan experiencing its own transition of dynasties at the end of the 12th century, The Tale of the Heike is the country’s analogous work of literature. Its is no less powerful.
The Tale of the Heike is the story of the transition of power from the Taira to the Minamoto clan. The groundswell beginning several years before the Genjei War which decided matters, the book opens with a slip in the Taira’s power base many decades prior. Taking years for this slip to manifest itself as a major weakness, the surrounding events are described and woven into the full political context of the kingdom at that time. Phase by phase, individual maneuver by maneuver, the machinations and plots of the Minamoto clan slowly reveal themselves. And in telling of the rise to power, not only cabals and battles fill the pages. Earthquakes, assassinations, mass executions, and major fires—all from real history—flesh out the change of dynasty, giving the history an edged interest.
One interesting difference between China’s The Three Kingdoms and Japan’s Tale of the Heike is the split along Greek theater lines. China’s epic having a tragic tone (its heroes fall from power), Japan’s is along more comedic lines, the antagonists being eliminated from favor instead— in particular the odious Kiyomori falling from grace. It must clearly be said, however, that the non-romanticized version of the tale, as McCullough’s is, generally avoids painting characters—real people from history, in fact—in melodramatic hues to gain reader reaction. For the most part, she retains a scholar’s mode of presentation, save the battle scenes and dialogue, which naturally preserve their flavor.
In the end, The Tale of Heike is considered one of, if not the most important piece of traditional Japanese literature. Redolent with names, places, events, and their role in real Japanese history, the book is both a record of society as it was and commentary upon societies to follow. McCullough’s translation considered among the most complete, it requires some patience. The occasionally unexciting passages relating the familial and political connections at stake are necessary if the complete history is to be related. Moments of action and excitement do exist, but the book is by and large for the connoisseur of Japanese history. If one is able to overlook the plethora of names, it’s possible to enjoy the book for the simple premise of social change, political cycles, and the machinations of power they meditate upon. For fans of Japanese history, it’s a must. Interestingly, fans of Homer’s The Iliad may also want to have a read given the deep-seated parallels mentioned above.