The date of 1185 marks a momentous change in the culture of Japan. With the civil war and the destruction of the power of the Heian court, Japan was now to alternate between moments of uneasy truce and outbreaks of fighting for several centuries until the country was finally unified again around 1600, under the leadership of the wily and skillful warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616), who brought peace to the nation for some two centuries.
One reason why the impact of this civil war, as momentous and long-remembered in Japanese history is as our own Civil War in the United States, only a century and a half ago, is due at least in part to the widely-read and studied chronicle of those war years entitled The Tale of the Heike (Heike monogatari), now regarded as one of the masterpieces of classical Japanese literature. The book has been translated into English three times, and is a powerful source not only for historical, religious, and cultural information it can provide, but as a repository for the tales of military and cultural heroes and villains who continue to populate novels, plays, Japanese historical films, even manga and anime. In many ways, The Tale of the Heike, along with The Tale of Genji, remain the ultimate source books for our understanding of premodern Japanese culture. And, even in translation, the Heike makes exciting and provocative reading, even now.
The Tale of the Heike is often regarded these days as a kind of historical novel, but its origins, and so its tonality and structure, are considerably different. While the beginnings of the Heike are obscure, it first became known as what we might now call a performance text. By the early twelfth century, a whole variety of stories concerning the war between the two rival clans that destroyed the power of the Heian court were sung by roving performers, often blind Buddhist monks, who accompanied themselves on the biwa, a Japanese instrument that might generally be described as a kind of small guitar. These monks, or biwa hōshi, as they were called, traveled the length and breadth of Japan, even to the remotest villages, performing various vocal and musical versions of these touching, often woeful stories, which stress the evanescence of all things, and the vanity of human life.
The version of the Heike which became more or less the standard one was that performed by a singer named Kakiuchi, and this so-called "Kakiuchi version" was taken down by a scribe in 1371. It was only after this time that the Heike began to be read as well as heard. Even in written form, the various stories and incidents often reveal the presence of vocal elements, particularly in occasional passages of elaborate language, with its repetitions, flourishes, and other devices, all of which would have made these various incidents come alive to the audiences, often illiterate, who first listened to these performances. Most of the chapters are in some sense self-contained, so that they could have been "performed" in a single sitting. Incidentally, the art of chanting the Heike is an art still alive today. I was fortunate enough to hear a striking rendition by a gifted Japanese performer of two famous incidents from the story at a conference in the spring of 2005. The somber sound of the biwa and the powerful voice of the chanter made a striking effect even on those who could not follow the text orally, actually a rather difficult task, since the language used in the fourteenth century is different from that spoken in contemporary Japan today.
The Heike, to a modern reader, seems to lie somewhere in the gap between what we think of as history and literature. All the hundreds of characters who appear in the story are real historical personages, and the events described are largely accurate, but the conversations, and the interior motivations, of the various protagonists are at least partially the creation of these anonymous storytellers.