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Essay on McCullough's Excerpts of Heike Monogatari

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The Tale of the Heike is one of the masterworks of Japanese literature, ranking with The Tal of Genji in quality and prestige

This new translation is not only far more readable than earlier ones, it is also much more faithful to the content and style of the original. Intended for the general audience as well as the specialist, this edition is highly annotated.

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Tale of the Heike is really long. It just is. It covers nearly one hundred years of happenings as the Taira and Minamoto clans battle for supremacy in the Japanese government, and there are SO MANY moments of dramatic irony that it hurts. Lots of yelling at the TV screen, if there were a TV, not to walk down that hallway. And Westerners will have a rough time of it because there are a ton of name changes and little side stories that don’t connect to an overarching narrative (in any direct way, at least), but the annotations and footnotes of this edition are actually really helpful. Also, I found it make my life easier to have a post-it note for each book with a one-sentence summary of each section; that way, when someone would pop up after having been absent for 56 pages, I could go back and remind myself why that guy was important.Along the way, there are great stories of love, horror, battle, song, beauty, an awful lot of people taking up the religious life, and poems galore. I appreciate that McCullough kept the Japanese with the poems, even though I don’t understand a lick of Japanese, because so much of the importance of poetry here is borrowing and punning and sound pattern, which gets lost in translation. All in all, this is a solid translation of this, and I do recommend it. The way it qualifies as a religious book (beyond that freaking everyone becomes a monk at some point, I feel) is the underlying theme of pushing against that arrogance/hubris. The gods are the gods and we are most decidedly not, and it’s Kiyomori’s decision that he can play on their scale that crashes the whole dynasty. This is a tale of the effects of karma

Karma, or (業)Gō, is where past deeds affect current ones; it relies on the idea that death happens, but it’s a temporary thing. So Taira no Kiyomori, who becomes a tyrant under the illustrious desire for power, started as a Buddhist teacher uncomprehending of the nature of evil. He figured it out, and it devours him as his actions for himself overwhelm his actions for others and the gods. As everywhere, religion is not detached from ordinary lives and political struggles. Warrior monks are wily players in this ongoing struggle, often competing in very earthly struggles for allegiance and manipulating events by using their monk statuses. So this is also a tale about how religion can be a tool like everything else and that following faith doesn’t necessarily make you untouchably pious. This book is a huge deal in Japanese culture; parts of it have been adapted to Noh plays and various performances. It’s kind of the Japanese Iliad in its applicability and staying power. It has some beautiful little stories within the larger narrative. For certain, this is tragedy and wonder and poetry and nature appreciation and totally worth the read. It’s sort of like Ecclesiastes; depressing as all get out, but beautiful in its own sad and inevitable way.

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Although some spend more time at court than in warrior households, the wives and daughters of Taira clansmen do not reflect the image we might have of relatively passive Heian-era court women (WAKITA, Haruko, 1992). There is a cluster of “strong wives” in the Heike monogatari. Some are veritable family heads, who, once their husbands are gone, manage the household and guard the safety of their remaining members, especially the children. Their responsibility for the children and their readiness to take complete charge stands out. In these stories it becomes clear that, with several exceptions, the wives are the ones to whom the memory of events is entrusted, the ones left to perform memorial services, to pray for the dead in subsequent years, and to remember and tell the world about what happened to their husbands and families. Tomoe (or Tomoe Gozen, Lady Tomoe, as later sources refer to her) is described in various versions of the Heike as a beautiful woman with fair skin, long hair, and charming features. Her military skills are impressive: she is said to be a strong archer and a brave swordswoman “worth a thousand warriors,” able even to ride unbroken horses

The scholar Hosokawa Ryōichi mentions other dairiki no onna (women of unusual physical strength) whose legends were known in medieval Japan, but concludes that a character that like Tomoe who brings together masculine attributes (strength and military skills) with feminine beauty and grace is unique in the premodern Japanese tradition. When Yoshinaka’s forces are outnumbered and the battle is clearly lost, the lord orders Tomoe to flee, because he does not want people to say that he had a woman next to him during his last battle. Even if Tomoe is far more valorous than most warriors, being a woman prevents her from fulfilling the most important duty of a medieval warrior: to die at her master’s side, as Yoshinaka’s male retainer Imai Kanehira does, proudly throwing himself on his sword after Yoshinaka is killed. While the idea that it would be dishonorable to die next to a woman might make sense on a superficial level, this explanation for Tomoe’s expulsion from the battlefield is not entirely convincing. If it were true, Yoshinaka would not have brought Tomoe with him in the first place. Steven Brown, who examines the possible reasons behind Yoshinaka’s decision, explores other versions of the Heike monogatari, including Genpei jōsuiki,where Yoshinaka instructs Tomoe to go back to his land and tell his family about his fate, which would otherwise remain unknown (BROWN, Steven T., 1998).

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In sum, its overall theme is the tragic downfall of the Taira family. It opens with the tolling of a temple bell that, proclaiming the impermanence of all things, reveals the truth that the mighty—even the tyrannical Taira Kiyomori, whose powers seem unlimited—will be brought low like dust before the wind. The Taira suffer a series of defeats, culminating in a sea battle off Dannoura (1185) in which the seven-year-old emperor and many nobles are drowned

The work concludes with an account of the subsequent life of the empress mother, born a Taira. She dies in a remote convent to the tolling of a bell.

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BROWN, Steven T. From Woman Warrior to Peripatetic Entertainer: The Multiple Histories of Tomoe. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, v. 58, n. 1, p.
183-199, 1998.

USUDA, Jingorō; SHINMA, Shin’ichi (Eds.). Ryōjin hishō. Nihon koten bungaku zenshū 25. Tokyo: Shōgakukan, 1976.

VARLEY, Paul. Warriors as Courtiers: The Taira in Heike monogatari. In:

HEINRICH, Amy Vladeck (Ed.). Currents in Japanese Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. p. 5-70.

WAKITA, Haruko. Nihon chūsei joseishi no kenkyū. Tokyo: Tōkyō daigaku shuppankai, 1992.

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