Essay on McCullough's Excerpts of Heike Monogatari
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.
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.
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).
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.
BROWN, Steven T. From Woman Warrior to Peripatetic Entertainer: The Multiple Histories of Tomoe. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, v. 58, n. 1, p.
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.