ahorbinski: Tomoe Gozen is so badass she glued her OTW mug to her wrist.  (tomoe gozen would haved loved the OTW)
Heike monogatari | The Tale of the Heike. Trans. Helen Craig McCullough. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988.

The sound of the Gion Shôja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sâla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.

In a distant land, there are the examples set by Zhao Gao of Qin, Wang Mang of Han, Zhu Yi of Liang, and Lushan of Tang, all of them men who prospered after refusing to be governed by their former lords and sovereigns, but who met swift destruction because they disregarded admonitions, failed to recognize approaching turmoil, and ignored the nation's distress. Closer to home, there have been Masakado of Shôhei, Sumitomo of Tengyô, Yoshichika of Kôwa, and Nobuyori of Heiji, every one of them proud and mighty, but closest of all, and utterly beyond the power of mind to comprehend or tongue to relate, is the tale of Taira no Ason Kiyomori, the Rokuhara Buddhist Novice and Former Chancellor. (23)

The Heike monogatari is Japan's Illiad, an epic poem performed by blind rhapsode monks who wandered the country in its middle ages reciting episodes for the awe and pity of their audiences. Unlike the Illiad, the germ of the Heike is actually a history written down about thirty years after the majority of the events the tale recounts, that of the Gempei Wars between the Taira and the Minamoto (aka the Genji) for who would have preeminence in the realm. (NB: I am simplifying for the sake of this review; the actual story of late antique Japan's transition into the medieval period is somewhat more complex. One of my friends who works on the period actually prefers to call it "the Gempei conflicts" because he thinks saying "the Genpei Wars" gives it too much of an illusory overarching narrative. But that illusory overarching narrative is the one the Heike propounds, and it does make for a decent story to tell anyone who isn't a specialist.)

The Heike is a loser's history, in the best Japanese fashion, and the Heike do have a pathos that the Genji for the most part lack, particularly after the grand death of their patriarch, the overweeningly arrogant Kiyomori. His death is one of the tale's most well-known episodes, but there are many others, most of them death scenes. (It's the women, overwhelmingly, who survive.)

I wouldn't actually agree that the Heike is an anti-war poem. (I wouldn't agree that the Illiad is an anti-war poem, either.) It is very Buddhist, but the Buddhist elements coexist very oddly at times with the warrior ethos of most of the main characters (which itself coexists oddly with their parvenus' obsession with obtaining court rank and preogatives). Prof. Berry can argue all she wants that war was not the predominant condition of medieval Japan, and I actually agree with that interpretation to a significant extent, but I do think that low-level conflict wasn't unknown, and that the absence of total warfare doesn't make the poem anti-war. Violence was not fundamentally strange, and the poem reflects that reality. It is a pity, but it is also what it is.

McCullough is one of the most noted translators of classical Japanese literature around, and overall I think her translation is excellent. She has a weird penchant for translating the indirect questions of poetry into declarative statements, which I don't particularly like, but I've read several parts of the Heike in the original classical Japanese and I do think she does a very good job overall at capturing the sense as well as the soul of the original. Classical Japanese is extraordinarily dense in resonance (though the Heike isn't as complex as the Genji), and there's only so much that English can do to recapture that. But if you want to read the whole Heike, this is the translation you want.


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Andrea J. Horbinski

August 2017

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