A Heike for the Ages

The Tale of the Heike (Heike monogatari), often referred to as Japan’s “epic,” is the subject of a lively new translation by Royall Tyler, the preeminent translator of Japanese classics. A work on ...

The Tale of the Heike (Heike monogatari), often referred to as Japan’s “epic,” is the subject of a lively new translation by Royall Tyler, the preeminent translator of Japanese classics. A work on par with the early 11th-century Tale of Genji for its national cultural significance, the Heike is an account of the Genpei War of 1180–1185, the civil war widely considered to have brought Japan’s “classical age” to an end. Assembled over the centuries following the devastating conflict, the tale developed into its fullest form in the hands of blind, male performers, known as biwa hōshi (lute priests). Its opening passage sets the ominous tone for the rest of the work:

The Jetavana Temple bells
ring the passing of all things.
Twinned sal trees, white in full flower,
declare the great man’s certain fall.
The arrogant do not long endure:
They are like a dream one night in spring.
The bold and brave perish in the end:
They are as dust before the wind.

At once a cautionary tale about pride and a lament for the passing of an age, the Heike focuses on war’s devastating effects on society and individuals: families torn apart, the tragic deaths of noble warriors, the sorrows of the families they left behind, and the futility of ambition and greed. Tyler’s new translation may finally bring it the broad readership and recognition as a work of world literature it deserves.

Following the precipitous rise and calamitous fall of the titular Heike clan, the tale is as much an expression of sorrow for the war’s losers as a justification of its victors. The Heike had traditionally been of middling rank, its men hereditarily holding military positions and provincial governorships but not key posts in the central court at Heian-kyō (modern-day Kyoto), the capital city. Under the leadership of two generations of ambitious and skillful leaders, they rose to achieve the most powerful political positions in the realm. The Heike briefly describes their ascent, then lingers over their fall and the larger consequences of the war that brought it about. The ambitions of the Heike scion, Kiyomori, unsatisfied with his status as chancellor—the highest civil position in the government—are the focus of the opening book. A skillful politician, Kiyomori seeks to cement his authority by marrying his daughter, Kenreimon-in, to the reigning emperor, Takakura.

Kiyomori’s dreams seem to have been realized when his daughter gives birth to the emperor’s son in 1178. The chancellor forces the emperor to first name the child to the throne, then to abdicate in his favor, thus extending Kiyomori’s powers, symbolic and real. Outrage on the part of aristocrats, combined with a festering rivalry between the Heike and another military clan, the Genji (who share a surname with the fictional hero of The Tale of Genji, but are unrelated), bring about the war. The Heike had substantially weakened the Genji in two earlier, smaller uprisings, and the animosity between the clans continues to smolder; the first volleys of the Genpei War come shortly before Kiyomori’s death. That war stretches over more than five years, during which the Heike are forced out of the capital and into exile at the realm’s western edge. In early 1185, they are destroyed by the Genji in a sea battle in the straits of Dan­no-ura. In the fray, the young emperor is drowned, taking with him to the bottom of the sea one of the three imperial regalia, a sword. The victorious Genji then set up the first shogunate in Kamakura, an isolated village far from Kyoto. In historical memory, the Genpei War became the military event that ushered in the “age of the warrior,” representing the attenuation of political sovereignty, the rise of the eastern provinces (including, eventually, the transformation of Edo—present-day Tokyo—into an alternative political center), and the symbolic losses of the emperor and one of the heavenly markers of his sovereignty.

As the tale narrating these momentous events, the Heike has been an enormously influential work since it was first recorded in the 13th century, and it is indeed the Heike’s version of the war that constitutes the cultural memory of this period. Even today, children in elementary school memorize its opening passage well before they have the facility to understand its classical grammar (let alone the life experience to discern its meaning), and their parents and grandparents can recite the same opening lines at the spur of the moment in casual conversation. During Japan’s imperial period, the Heike was a touchstone for militarists, who found in it the roots of the militarized masculinity vital to their ideal citizen; later it served as a source for postwar filmmakers and playwrights seeking to understand the meanings of World War II, militarism, and imperial responsibility.

The enduring historical significance of the Genpei war, combined with the artistry of the Heike’s narrative, have led to translations over the past hundred years into foreign languages ranging from Chinese and Korean to French, Russian, and Czech.

Like the works of Shakespeare in the English-speaking world, the Heike, in addition to being part of the vernacular for anyone who has been through the Japanese educational system, has provided the inspiration for many other works as well, starting with the Noh drama and medieval narrative, then Kabuki and puppet (Bunraku) theaters in the early modern period. A recent historical drama series on Japan’s public television station recast the life of Kiyomori, and tourist sites associated with the events and characters of the Heike, both real and fictional, can be found throughout most of Japan. The enduring historical significance of the war, combined with the artistry of the narrative, have led to translations over the past hundred years into foreign languages ranging from Chinese and Korean to French, Russian, and Czech. The first English translation was published in 1918–1921, followed by others in 1975 and 1988, all of which helped make the work a staple in college classrooms. Long recognized as a master translator, Royall Tyler has taken on some of the most challenging works of classical Japanese literature, including Noh plays and the monumental The Tale of Genji (2002). Tyler is celebrated for both his own lyrical voice and a tendency to experiment with style in the name of capturing the flavor of the original; with Genji, he famously remained true to the original by referring to characters by rank rather than personal name. His innovative approach to the Heike draws us closer to the original, while bringing out the vitality of the work in new ways. The result is a translation that will appeal to both general and specialist audiences.

On the one hand, the relatively straightforward narrative style of the Heike makes it easier to translate than works like the elliptical Genji or Noh drama. On the other, the Heike offers its own challenges. Even to speak of a unitary work called “Heike monogatari” is misleading: there are approximately 80 variant texts of the work, and they differ dramatically. We know little about the early evolution of the Heike variants. Some are related to each other, but scholars shy away from the idea of an “ur Heike,” instead positing that a number of Heike tales existed early on and developed sometimes independently and sometimes in connection with each other; their relationship can perhaps best be compared to the Mahabharata, which also developed through accretion, exists in variants, and is not attributed to a specific author, although the Heike developed much more quickly.

The variants are often described in terms of the form we think they originally took. Some were intended as written accounts of the war: these are the “reading-text line” (yomihonkei). Others were originally part of the performance repertoires of biwa hōshi; these comprise the “performance-text line” (kataribonkei). Depending on their own status and provenance, these men performed episodes from the Heike either at the homes of the elite and as part of formal memorial services at important temples, or in common spaces including temple grounds, markets, and along the highways across the realm. Thus to translate the Heike is to select one of many Heike to translate. The reader must bear in mind, as Tyler indicates in his introduction, that historically a much larger number of Heike were circulating, meaning that other versions, some of them very different from each other, also constitute “the Heike” as audiences knew it.

One of the most important innovations of Tyler’s translation is that it uses page layout to differentiate among the variety of styles in which segments are sung, drawing attention to the performance context in which the Heike was created and received.

Most English translations, including Tyler’s, have been based on a “performance-text line” variant, the Kakuichi-bon, considered the most “literary” variant, and the one that most fully realizes the theme of impermanence, a quintessentially medieval, Buddhist concern. The Kakuichi-bon is organized into twelve books plus an epilogue, “The Initiates’ Book.” The narrative is more or less chronological, with many books opening at the beginning of a year. Books are further divided into named episodes, which could be performed individually or as part of a long performance of a series of Heike episodes. Within each episode, segments are sung in a variety of styles, primarily, as Tyler notes in his introduction, “speech” (shirakoe), “recitative” (kudoki), and “song.” This final category includes a number of melodic formulae (kyokusetsu) from the performance tradition, including poems, formal song types, and lyric passages within the Heike text.

One of the most important innovations of Tyler’s translation is that it uses page layout to differentiate among these styles, drawing attention to the performance context in which the Heike was created and received. Speech is right-justified, indented prose; “recitative” is left-justified and sometimes the lines “overflow the full width of the page”; “song” consists of short, generally rhythmic indented lines, which reflects the fact that song and poetry in Japanese rely more on rhythm than rhyme. The formatting of the prose passages encourages us to move quickly through the plot-driven narrative, and linger on the lyric, emotionally laden (“song”) passages.

This aspect of the book’s design effectively suggests the varying speed and tone that characterize recitations of the Heike: in performance, “speech” runs along quickly, pushing the listener ever forward through the action, while “song” moves more slowly and involves more ornamented, extended vocal techniques in the service of conveying more poetic topoi such as romantic encounters and reunions, partings and deaths. Although the page cannot bring vocalization alive—and it is hard to imagine what Heike recitation sounds like unless one has heard it1—the choice of different formats effectively conveys the varied pacing of an actual Heike performance.

Tyler thus situates the Heike in an oral tradition, though the general milieu in which the Heike appeared was not fully “oral” in the way oral studies pioneers Milman Parry and Albert Lord defined the field, since classical Japan had already produced literary masterpieces including The Tale of Genji, The Pillow Book, and The Gossamer Diary, as well as official histories (written in Chinese) and untold numbers of poems both in Japanese and Chinese. Medieval Japan, like the classical period before it, was literate, bi- and multilingual, deeply interested in Chinese and Indian languages and cultures, and always conscious of the sound of the spoken language, the appearance of written language, and the possible synergies and disjunctions they could create.

Both textual lines reflect the complexity of this relationship: the “read-text line” variants evoke traditional historiography. They are written in language very close to Chinese and organized by date rather than episode. The “recited-text line” also acknowledges the importance of the written word through its liberal inclusion of embedded documents, like the exchange of letters between Kiso Yoshinaka and the monks of Mt. Hiei.

Yet the Heike was also a performing art practiced by blind raconteurs who depended on prodigious memories and musical cues to perform a repertoire of over 200 hours’ worth of tale-telling. What most notably sets Tyler’s translation apart is his concern with conveying this oral dimension. Although the Heike can move from lyric to prose to missive and back within any given episode, it relies, like its Western counterparts, on set forms that probably helped to shape the narrative when its transmission and performance were “oral.” One of the potentially very important consequences of this version is to make the Heike comparable, as a performance text, with more familiar genres and works, ranging from Homeric epics to chansons de geste and the South Slavic heroic poetry studied by Parry and Lord.

The degree to which Tyler’s approach changes our experience of the tale emerges through comparison of his Heike with earlier translations. Consider, for example, two renderings of a famous scene from Book 4, Episode 11, a snapshot from an early skirmish in the war. An aging Genji warrior, Yorimasa, attempts a coup against Kiyomori. He finds himself outnumbered, facing a large Heike army across the Uji river. Here is Helen Craig McCullough’s 1988 translation of one of the battle’s most colorful passages, where the warrior monk Jōmyō Meishū sets out to cross the piers of the bridge whose deck he and his allies had removed as they fled the capital. Jōmyō calls out:

“You must have heard of me long ago. See me now with your own eyes! Everyone at Miidera knows me! I am the worker-monk Jōmyō Meishū from Tsutsui, a warrior worth a thousand men …” … Then, with one arrow left, he sent the bow clattering away, untied and discarded the quiver, cast off his fur boots, and ran nimbly along a bridge beam in his bare feet. Others had feared to attempt the crossing: Jōmyō acted as though it were Ichijō or Nijō Avenue. … Hard-pressed by the enemy host, he slashed in every direction, using the zigzag, interlacing, crosswise, dragonfly reverse, and water-wheel maneuvers. After cutting down eight men on the spot, he struck the helmet top of a ninth so hard that the blade snapped at the hilt rivet, slipped loose, and splashed into the river.2

Here is Tyler’s version:

“You will have long heard tell of me.
Here I am now, before your eyes!
At Miidera everyone knows me: me, the
practitioner-monk Tsutsui no Jōmyō Meishū, a
man stalwart against a thousand! …”

With a clatter he dropped the bow,
untied the quiver, let it fall,
kicked off his fur boots, and, barefoot,
darted across the bridge on a beam.
Nobody else dared to follow
down this, to him, broad avenue.

he tossed it [his halberd] away,
drew his sword, and went on fighting:
The “spider strike,” the “twisted rope,”
the “four-arm cross,” the “dragonfly,”
the “waterwheel”—that sword of his
slashed through all the eight directions
until eight men lay dead before him.
On the helmet of the ninth,
down it came then with such force
that the blade broke at the hilt,
flew off, splashed into the river.

Both versions are quite accurate, and in some cases McCullough’s is truer to the original, which indeed mentions the “broad avenues” of Ichijō and Nijō by name, but the contrasting styles leave radically different impressions. Although one senses the narrator’s “voice” in McCullough’s version, his presence recedes behind a rather straightforward battle description. Her text looks and feels like a text: she renders a book, not a performance. Tyler, by contrast, more fully captures the sense of a reciter behind the lines we read. This is in part enabled simply by the imitation of vocalization patterns. In Tyler’s version, the hero “untied the quiver, let it fall, / kicked off his fur boots, and, barefoot, / darted across the bridge on a beam.” Presented as verse, each line begins with a verb, drawing attention to Jōmyō’s specific, forceful actions. This pattern captures something of the pace of the original, in which this passage consists of a series of three short verbal constructions ending with the syllables … keri; … nari; … tari, all of which signal the end of a verbal phrase, are two syllables long, and end in the syllable “ri.” Tyler finds an equivalent for this by repeating past-tense verbs at the beginning of each line. Tyler’s attention to the rhythm of the language, combined with his decision to recreate an active, propulsive tempo, captures something vital in the original language that McCullough’s straight prose does not.

While the choice to experiment with formats is the most noticeable way in which Tyler situates the text more firmly within the performing arts tradition, he is equally impressive in his ability to give the reader a sense of the reciter’s individual voice. Compare Tyler’s “that sword of his / slashed through all the eight directions / until eight men lay dead before him” to McCullough’s “He slashed in every direction … After cutting down eight men on the spot.” Tyler here captures the rapid repetition of “eight directions … eight men” from the original, which, along with the expression “that sword of his,” suggest something of the oral nature of the teller’s art.

Teisai Hokuba, <i>The Heike Cross the Uji River</i> (recto half), from <i>Heike monogatari zue</i>, text by Takai Ranzan, published in Japan in two parts, in 1829 and 1849

Teisai Hokuba, The Heike Cross the Uji River (recto half), from Heike monogatari zue, text by Takai Ranzan, published in Japan in two parts, in 1829 and 1849

Nevertheless, for those reading the work in translation in the 21st century, there remains an innate and enormous cognitive distance: those new to the Japanese tradition face an unknown tale from a still only partially known culture. The cast of characters is large and possessed of maddeningly similar names: Tadamori fathered Kiyomori, who in turn fathered Shigemori, Munemori, Tomomori, and Tomonori; Kiyomori’s brother, Norimori, fathered Michimori, Noritsune, and Narimori. Time is measured in named eras (Tenshō 1, third month, thirteenth day; the first day of Jishō 4), and many eras lasted only several years. Place names often do not match their modern-day counterparts: although the battle of Ichi-no-tani occurs in what is now Kobe, the city of that name did not exist in the 12th century.

Tyler provides a very strong set of supporting references to help guide the interested reader. To get the most out of the work, start with his introduction, which summarizes the events of the war as well as the production and circulation of the tale. Other important references include helpful maps of all the regions mentioned in the narrative; a glossary of important characters by name, cross-referenced to the episodes in which they appear; and Gregorian dates added as superscripts above each reference to a Japanese period. Although the illustrations are from a 19th-century printed edition of the tale, they nevertheless give a sense of the dress and customs of warrior society. Occasional footnotes also explain particularly oblique references in the text. The more curious reader would probably ask for additional notes as well as a bibliography of useful references in English, but the goal of this translation is to attract the general reader, and the references provided will serve that reader well: they are useful without being obtrusive or daunting.

Even with all of these supplementary aids, a first reading of the Heike will require cross-reference and rereading. Tyler’s translation ensures that the patient reader will be richly rewarded: the language is vibrant and colorful, and there are very few infelicities—a medieval rainfall described in terms of cats and dogs; the name of a sword bestowed upon a warrior translated as “Lion King,” which may reflect Tyler’s unfamiliarity with the Disney movie by that title. Although the names and events may be unfamiliar in their particulars, The Tale of the Heike tells memorable stories about subjects that we know all too well: the folly of pride and the cruelty of war. Tyler’s translation fully captures the humanity and the pathos of these universal themes as they come to life in one of Japan’s most important and enduring classics. icon

  1. See, for example, “The Lesser Secret Piece ‘Gion shoja’ from the Heike biwa repertoire, performed at Okura Tenshin’s beloved Rokkakudō,” YouTube video, 7:46, from a performance by Arao Tsutomu, posted by “平曲弾き語り奏者 荒尾 (Arao Tsutomu),” March 11, 2013.
  2. The Tale of the Heike, translated by Helen Craig McCollough (Stanford University Press, 1988), p. 153.
Featured image: Teisai Hokuba, The Heike Cross the Uji River (verso half), from Heike monogatari zue, text by Takai Ranzan, published in Japan in two parts, in 1829 and 1849