A Conversation with the National Heike Association

03/12/2018 - By: Daniel Miles

One of our reasons for adapting The Tale of the Heike is that it’s a relatively little-known story in the Western world.  But in Japan its tradition is still alive and well. We had the privilege recently of talking with Hiroshi Nozaki of the National Heike Association, a group composed of Taira descendents and dedicated to the historical preservation of the Heike (Taira) clan.  This year they’re commemorating the 900th anniversary of the birth of Taira no Kiyomori, the patriarch of the Taira clan who is one of the key figures in the epic.

We gained a lot of valuable insight from our conversation with him, and we’d like to pass along some of his thoughts, so that our readers can also benefit from his perspective.

The Origins of the Story

Hiroshi Nozaki:

“The prevailing theory about the origin of the Tale of Heike is that it was written by Yukinaga and the storytelling was done by Shobutsu. However, this theory is not absolutely certain. Whether “Shobutsu” was in fact his name or a description of him meaning, “The Monk with a beautiful voice” is unclear.

“Tale of Heike was completed at the beginning of the Kamakura era. In that era, there were still people alive who knew the Taira and their dynasty. There were inevitably living witnesses whose experiences contributed to the Tale. In the historical backdrop of that period, the Taira were described slightly unfavorably.

“I’m eager to read your work. Please redeem the Taira. It’s my personal opinion, but I believe Tale of Heike is a never ending story.”

This 13th Century context in which these disparate stories were collected to form an epic is something we have definitely kept in mind.  For audiences in that era, under the rule of those who had defeated the Taira clan, it seems obvious that the Taira/Heike would be cast as the villains.  In many places, the story is quite explicit about referring to Taira no Kiyomori as sinful, and blaming on him everything that befell his family.

For modern readers, though, that context gives us plenty of reason to distrust that characterization.  There are many flaws to see in the Taira’s assailants, and many stories of nobility and heroism from amongst the Taira ranks.  I don’t know whether our retelling is a redemption for them, but it is certainly our intention to show these historical figures in all their depth.

The Bells of Gion Shoja

The first line of the Tale of the Heike is a particularly famous one, owing in part to the fact that children in Japanese schools are required to memorize it.  It is also a surprising opening for a story this is otherwise set entirely in Japan.

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about symbolism and importance of the first image of the story.  But we particularly appreciate how Hiroshi Nozaki relates it back to the women who survive the tale and are able to witness its ending.  Their role in the story is one that we want to be sure to bring out.

Hiroshi Nozaki:

“The beginning of the story is, “The sound of the Gion Shōja temple bells echoes the impermanence of all things”. The Gion Shoja temple bells are crystal temple bells from India that produce a beautiful sound. When a high ranking buddhist monk was on his death bed, the ringing of the bells would bring him a peaceful death. The crystal bells are from India, so why would they be at the beginning of a Japanese tale? At the time, Buddhism was at the root of society. People both feared and revered Buddhism, and there were some who took a pilgrimage to India, the land where Buddhism began. It is believed that from these travels, the symbol of the crystal bells had been brought back to Japan. When a high ranking monk would pass on, they would hear their beautiful tones.

“Who did the writer want to hear the sounds that soothe the soul? It’s commonly believed that everyone in the Tale was meant to hear them. However, I believe they were meant for Kiyomori’s daughter, Kenremon’in. In the last chapter of Tale of Heike, the surviving female members of the Heike family turn into nuns and hold a memorial service for their family. The Tale of Heike ends with those remaining women, who saw the glory and the downfall of the Heike family. I think of that chapter as the beginning of the Tale. That is, the end is also the beginning.

“It is said that when one is just about to die their life flashes before their eyes. When the women confront their end, they wish to hear the sounds of the crystal bells.”

Here are some pictures from the National Heike Association’s meeting last year at the grave site of Kenreimon’in and other women of the Heike.

For more information about the National Heike Association, you can find their website here: http://www.heikekai.info/

Or find them on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/Heikekai/

And there’s one day left to contribute to our Kickstarter campaign here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1478760694/tale-of-the-taira-graphic-novel-volume-1

We would like to thank our translators, Shigeru Odani and Celia Mooradian, for making this conversation possible.

By: Daniel Miles

By: Daniel Miles

Co-Founder of Peers of Menard

Of the two Tale of the Taira co-authors, Dan is the one with the beard.

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