The 13th-century “Heike Monogatari” (“The Tale of the Heike”) is the most characteristically Japanese of masterpieces. All the great themes are here, inseparably interwoven: war, love, religion, death, courage, loyalty, betrayal. The prevailing sentiment is sorrow: overwhelming for the defeated Heike clan, less so for the victorious Minamoto — but even triumph brings no joy; only, it seems, a deeper awareness of life’s inevitable, inescapable, tragic pathos.
Hatred is as conspicuously absent as joy. We expect enemies to hate each other — if not viscerally, artificially, revulsion stirred by invective known in our day as dehumanization. Nothing of the sort mars the “Tale.” On the contrary — “I can think of few other instances in other cultures,” writes Japanologist J. Thomas Rimer, “where those involved in fighting … have admired their enemies so much.”
He cites the famous episode in which the humble Minamoto warrior Kumagai, having captured the young Heike courtier Atsumori and about to cut off his head, pauses mid-stroke. The youth is simply too beautiful, and the magnificent flute found on his person suggests talent and sensitivity beyond the ordinary. “‘Alas!’ (Kumagai) cries, ‘what life is so hard as that of a soldier? … How lamentable it is to do such cruel deeds!'” But do them he must. “Though I would spare your life,” he says to Atsumori, “the whole countryside swarms with our men, and you cannot escape them. If you must die, let it be by my hand, and I will see that prayers are said for your rebirth in bliss.”
A similar encounter elsewhere in the “Tale” ends less romantically. The seasoned Heike warrior Takahashi has at his mercy one Yukishige, who, introducing himself according to custom, declares, “My age is 18!” “Ah, how pitiful!” cries Takahashi, the tears streaming down his face. “If my lad, who fell last year, had lived till now, he would be just 18; I ought to twist your neck and cut off your head, but as it is I will let you go.” But the youth is made of sterner stuff. No sooner is Takahashi’s back turned than Yukishige springs. Takahashi falls. It takes all kinds to make a war — and an epic.
Few civilizations honor poetry as Japan’s did. The most hard-bitten warriors are poets; the most sensitive poets can die bravely on the battlefield. A snatch of dialogue in the “Tale” bears witness.
The Minamoto troops are massed atop a cliff at Ichinotani (near present-day Kobe). The Heike are encamped below. The plan is to take them by surprise, thundering down the cliff on horseback — an almost impossible feat and, indeed, the soldiers murmur against it: “If we must die, it were better to die facing the foe than to fall over a cliff and be killed.” The commanding general is Minamoto Yoshitsune, whose fantastic exploits belong as much to legend as to history. Scornfully he overrides all doubt. Who knows the way down the mountains?
“I know these mountains very well,” exclaims one warrior. An empty boast? “You were brought up in the Eastern Provinces,” Yoshitsune reminds him, “and this is the first time you have seen the mountains of the West.”
“That may be even as your Excellency says,” the warrior replies, “but just as a poet knows the cherry blossoms of Yoshino and Hatsuse without seeing them, so does a proper warrior know the way to the rear of an enemy’s castle!”
The descent is effected, the surprise shattering, the rout total.
A vast cast of characters populates the “Tale” — men and women, soldiers and priests, high and low, admirable and contemptible. Their various pursuits — war, love, religious salvation — are serious, the most serious known to humankind, perhaps, and yet a curiously childlike ambience reigns. Listen, for example, to this battlefield exchange of schoolboy taunts among warriors on the very brink of death and slaughter.
“So who is the leader of the (Minamoto) with whom we have to do today?” jeers a strutting Heike warrior.
A young Minamoto fighter takes up the challenge: “It is needless to repeat it, but he is the Lord Yoshitsune … descended in the 10th generation from the Emperor Seiwa!”
“Oh!” chortles the other, “Then it is the wretched little stripling, who was left an orphan when his father was killed in the Heiji fighting, and who became an acolyte at Kurama temple, and ran away to Mutsu carrying baggage in the train of a gold merchant.”
“Why show off your eloquence in such talk about our lord?” demands the Minamoto man. “I fancy you are one of those who got yourself well beaten at Tonamiyama … and just escaped with your life, to beg your way home. …”
“What need to be a beggar,” retorts the Heike stalwart, “when one has a bounteous lord to depend on? I didn’t get my living and keep my family on robbing and thieving … and being wwa low retainer, as you did.” He didn’t know it but he was seconds away from death, an archer’s bow trained on him even as he spoke.
The authors (identities unknown) had, of course, never read Homer’s “Iliad,” and yet sometimes you can’t help thinking they must have, so Homeric at times is their language: “Both armies joined battle all along the line, and the roar of their war-cries was such as to be heard even to the highest heavens of Brahma, and to cause the deity deep under the earth to start in amazement.”
What does it all mean? A priest named Jokai, sparing of words but pithy of thought, offers cold comfort: “Those that are born must die; those that meet must part — it is the way of this world.” He couldn’t know, of course — probably wouldn’t have cared— the historical consequences, namely the rise of the victorious Minamoto and the harsh new ethic known to us as Bushido, the way of the warrior.
The fighting ended in 1185. Half a millennium later, the haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-94) visited one of the battlefields and saw only “the summer grasses — of brave soldiers’ dreams the aftermath.”
All quotes, this month and last, from “The Tale of the Heike” are from the translation by A.L. Sadler. Michael Hoffman’s book, “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan,” is currently on sale.