Monday, July 11, 2016

Review: The Tale of the Heike

The Tale of the Heike The Tale of the Heike by Heike
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Almost 35 years ago, when we were around 15, my friend Alan and I saw the movie “Men Who Tread on Tigers’ Tails.” It’s an early one by the director Akira Kurasowa, and I think it changed my life. I’d never understood before that a movie could be about more than just the story it was telling. I’d liked (even loved) some films before that, and I’d disliked others, but it was always about a sense of whether I was being entertained. That film taught me that, in a skilled director’s hands, everything is part of describing a potential way to look at the world. Whether it was the lighting, costume, inflection (and the actors all speak in Japanese with subtitles) or framing, everything suggested a sense of what I might call the samurai code: restraint, dignity, and a fierce pride. I didn’t have to “enjoy” the experience (although I did.) I just had to accept, and be moved by the fact, that some artists see things differently.

I think it affected Alan, too, who – last I checked – remembered it almost as vividly as I did in his career as an artist and architect.

The film tells the story of a Japanese general, Yoshitsune, who is on the run from his brother, Yoritimo. Yoshitsune was the great hero in the war that established Yoritomo as the shogun, but then Yoshitsune turned on him and wanted to destroy him a potential rival. The Kurasowa film tells the story of a single episode in that long conflict: Yoshitsune, disguised as a woman and accompanied by a handful of his retainers – most importantly the warrior monk, Benkei – has to find a way past a guarded gate. The chief guard suspects who Yoshitsune is, but he eventually gives in – out of a mixture of pity and admiration – and the hunted men get through.

Kurasowa made the film in Japan in 1945. (Think about that, just months after Hiroshima.) He had a budget that, in today’s dollars, would be less than half a million dollars. Yet the movie seemed a haunting chapter in an epic. I once found a book called “Yoshitsune,” but I can’t remember it doing any of the same emotional things the movie did. It told the facts (Yoritomo and Yoshitsune are historical figures, but they’re also the subject of many legends) but lost the poetry.

Well, The Tale of the Heike, is that full story with all the poetry. It’s one of the major epics of Japanese history. I suppose I had heard the title, but I didn’t know what it was. (It’s not as well known in the West as The Tale of Genji, which I have yet to read, but it gets mentioned.) A couple of the characters from Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 really admire it, so I looked it up on Wikipedia for a thumbnail sketch. Somewhere in the summary, I read that it tells the story of Yoshitsune. I bought the book that afternoon, and started in on it nibble by nibble for the next month or so.

This book starts slowly. If you’re still with me in this review, then chances are you’re where I was: trying to decide whether it’s worth investing so much time in a book that looks so strange and intimidating. So understand that perhaps as much as the first two-thirds of this work establish a world that plays by very different rules than anything we know in the West. I almost gave up on it, but I wanted to get to the Yoshitsune parts. If you can hang on that long, it will be worth it. Maybe it will even change your life.

At a simple level, this is the story of a clan of Japanese warriors, the Heike, who come to dominate court politics. (Royall Tyler makes all this clear in his introduction which I foolishly skipped until I’d finished. Bad idea; take 10 minutes to get grounded through that introduction.) Under their leader, Kiyomori, they become arrogant and cruel, and eventually they commit many offenses – some intentionally and some by accident – and eventually give opportunity to a rival clan, the Genji, led by my old friend Yoritomo. (By the way, the Genji of this story are not the same as the individual named Genji of The Tale of Genji – at least that’s what I understand at the moment.)

There are a lot of names here, though, so many that the list of primary characters includes probably only about one in twenty of the characters who get named in the course of the work. If you’re like me, you’ll find it bewildering at times to follow the action. I actually used multiple bookmarks so I could look back at the character list and forward to the extensive family trees. I’d routinely lose a sense of what was going on and get frustrated trying to figure out which clan someone supported or which person was his immediate enemy. And there are plenty of episodes I’m sure I just glossed over.

It’s easy to lose sight of the central conflict, but, in the end, don’t worry about that. There are lots of digressions – descriptions of someone’s armor, accounts of legends from centuries earlier, or even quick descriptions of what constitutes good faith or ethical character – but I think it is okay to miss them. There’s so much here that you don’t have to explore every corner to get a sense of the weight of the whole. Recognize that the first six or seven books set up the Heike as, in general, arrogant and unappreciative of their high standing, and then recognize that the last five or six recount their fall and the Genji’s rise.

And then appreciate the poetry here.

For starters, look at how it starts:

“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.”

If that doesn’t work for you, if it doesn’t give a light, clear sense of the great weight of the war and politics that overturned a great nation, give it a little longer. This is what strikes me as profound Eastern insight: you have an obligation to be as strong and focused as you can make yourself, but you also have to recognize your smallness before the rest of the world.

And to that end, we get an increasingly moving experience here: one character after another, when wounded, victorious, in love, or contemplating great loss, writes a brief poem. One ideal here is the warrior-poet, and if the language doesn’t always translate outside of the moment of composition, the effort is always moving. They’re wrestling with death and dignity at all times, and they’re refusing to live as beasts.

Another powerful aesthetic here is the sense that no one means very much outside his or her clan. Many of these figures commit suicide rather than give in to the enemy. It’s sometimes about sparing themselves physical pain or ignominy, but it’s also sometimes about the great terror that would follow if they were truly alone. We have a much more developed sense of self in our culture; here’s a glimpse at how war and tumult affect people with a very different outlook on the world. No one asks to be part of the family he or she is born into; no one here can clearly contemplate what it means to have that family disappear.

In that light, Yoshitsune’s story is all the more powerful. After all, it’s his own brother who’s hunting him. It’s his own clan that has turned on him for no clear reason. He’s both the greatest of the Genji and the least. As the Heike rises and then falls, so does he. As the temple bells ring the passing of all things, they ring the passing of even the greatest heroes.

This would all be a lot easier to follow if it had a more consistent political perspective. I assumed at one point that it would be a “hit-piece” on the Heike, making them out to be uniformly bad guys. Instead, there are many Heike to admire and many Genji to question. One clan rises and another falls, but the greater truths endure. It’s all a great puppet show, but underneath it lies the great and unreachable beauty of human experience.

I admired the scene Murakami quotes in 1Q84, but I admire it even more here, in context. When the Genji close in on the child emperor, almost the last key political chip in the Heike’s hands, his nurse takes him out to drown in the sea. She tells him, “This land of ours, a few millet grains scattered in remote areas, is not a nice place. I am taking you to a much happier one.” And before he leaves this world, “he pressed his dear little hands together,// prostrated himself toward the east,// and bade farewell to the Ise shrine,// then turned to the west, calling the Name.” I didn’t quite see the beauty of it when I came upon it in 1Q84, so it may not come through here either, but there’s such a profound emptiness to it, an emptiness that becomes a beauty on the other side. Free of the burdens of living in this world, he sees precisely what he’s being asked to surrender of it. And then, spoiler alert, he drowns.

That same feeling gets echoed in one of my favorite laments, an editorialization by Akashi Kakuichi, who seems to have put this book into its official written form sometime in the 14th century. “In this present world of ours, the throne inspires no awe.// In ancient times an imperial edict, read aloud to a dead tree,// drew from it blossoms and ripening fruit// and commanded obedience from the very birds of the air.”

In case you find yourself drawn to the Yoshitsune sections in the way I am (and be warned that they come late, really only in the last two books), you might note the irony that the incident from The Men Who Tread on Tigers’ Tails is not here. That seems to be from a No play, called Ataka, by way of a kabuki play called Kanjinchō. Kanjincho is now on my list, just ordered. (They were writing fan fiction in medieval Japan, too.)

Don’t worry, though, Yoshitsune emerges as a serious bad-ass here. At one point, he decides to split his army so his main force will engage the enemy and he’ll lead a smaller unit to the rear. The enemy thinks they’re protected by rocky, dangerous mountains behind them. Yoshitsune, though, startles several deer and then rides his horse behind them on the theory that the wild animals will know the surest pathways through the mountains. And it works, surprising one of the last serious Heike generals into defeat.

At another point, when the Heike are making a final stand on an island, Yoshitsune leads a small expeditionary fleet in the middle of a storm. As he says to his frightened troops. “Merely that others refuse to go// makes no excuse for doing the same.// Good weather keeps an enemy watchful.// When howling winds and foaming waves// seem to guarantee perfect safety.// that is when an attack hits hardest.”

Or try this one, my favorite of his hardboiled lines. “The warriors muttered among themselves, ‘But it’s so dark! How will we find our way?’ ¶ ‘What about the usual torches – the great, big ones?’ Yoshitsune asked. ¶ ‘By all means!’ Sanehira replied. He set fire to the houses of Onabara.”

I’ve gone on way too long (and self-indulgently) but the bottom line is that I found myself intrigued but almost bored for nearly two-thirds of this. And then, suddenly, I was as moved by this story as I was when I first glimpsed it 35 years ago.

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