The Tale of the Heike is a Japanese epic poem relating the rise and eventual, inevitable fall of the Taira clan, also referred to as the Heike, during the end of the 12th century. The epic consists of thirteen books. Within the first five, the consolidation of power by the Taira is outlined featuring the “tyrant” Taira no Kiyomori. After Kiyomori’s death in the sixth book, the focus shifts to the rival clan, the Minamoto or Genji, as they orchestrate the complete destruction of the Taira and establish themselves as the dominant house. In contextualizing this work’s importance, Heike is regarded as a “seminal masterpiece of Japanese culture” on the level of The Tale of Genji.
Since the epic has a history of being performed as well as read, the physical structure of the passages can vary significantly. Royall Tyler, the translator, chose to incorporate three formats into the text, those of speech, recitative, and song. The purpose of doing so is meant to be reflective of how the text would have been presented in a performance setting. The formats are analogous to “spoken dialogue, recitative, and aria in oratorio or opera.” This manifests as a justified prose against the right margin, “highly irregular lines that start at the left margin,” and verse respectively.
When examining the plot structure of the poem, a distinctive pattern emerges. The story is frequently interrupted with anecdotes that are either directly or indirectly related to current events. This often takes the form of recounting historical precedents as a way of contextualizing a character’s actions or, if the precedent is lacking, perhaps to note a deviation from tradition. For example, when Kiyomori resolves to move the capital to Fukuhara, the chapter pauses in order to detail that such an event had occurred multiple times in the past. However, his decision is still condemned as the capital had remained stationary for centuries due to the divine attributes of the site.
Despite the Taira’s vilified persona, the clan possesses an ambiguous position on the continuum of good and evil. This is perhaps most effectively exemplified by the chief patriarch, Lord Kiyomori, and his eldest son, Shigemori. The two characters represent multiple facets of the clan. Kiyomori is clearly viewed as a negative figure, and much of the conflict in the epic is attributed to him. The opening lines make the assertion that even for a great man, those who indulge in arrogance “do not long endure.” Despite this, Kiyomori does possess redeeming qualities. He restores the Itsukushima Shrine, which results in divine favor being bestowed upon him and his kin. Ultimately, Kiyomori is not evil by nature. Rather, it is a state brought on by an absence, a lacking, of the embodiment of key religious themes, which results in misguided choices and conflict. Shigemori, on the other hand, is portrayed as a sort of religious ideal and the antithesis to Kiyomori in many respects.