The Heike Story

In 12th century Japan, Biwa is a travelling minstrel, her name derived from the lute-like instrument she plays. One day, Biwa is in the company of her blind father when she unexpectedly gets caught up in an incident in which someone is being victimised by a group of thugs. The thugs, however, turn out to be agents of Taira Kiyomori, the head of the powerful Taira clan that effectively rules Japan. When her father is murdered by the agents, Biwa unexpectedly falls in with Taira Shigemori, Kiyomri’s son and heir who, unlike his ruthless father, proves to be a gentle and honourable person. Shigemori takes Biwa into the Taira household and introduces her to other members of the Taira clan: Lady Tokuko, Shigenori’s half-sister who, like him, is kind and generous; Koremori, Shigemori’s eldest son; Munemori, his half-brother; and other family members. Through the Taira, Biwa also meets the “retired” Emperor Go-Shirakawa, who schemes to wrest control of the government away from Kiyomori; the reigning Emperor, Takakura, who is married to Lady Tokuko, with whom he parents a child, future Emperor Antoku; and various other members of the imperial court. But what only Shigemori at first realises (though others eventually catch on) is that, through the oddly coloured eye she inherited from her missing mother, Biwa can see glimpses of the future; and that future predicts disaster for the Taira. As the clouds of civil war gather and the powerful Minamoto clan squares off against the Taira for control of the imperial court (with Go-Shirakawa lurking in the background hoping to play each off against the other) Biwa determines to find her missing mother and become the chronicler of the Taira clan and its fate…

Based on Hideo Furukawa’s 2016 translation of the 14th century literary epic Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike) into modern Japanese, “The Heike Story” was produced by anime studio Science SARU and premiered on 16th September 2021. Directed by the acclaimed Naoko Yamada (A Silent Voice, Liz and the Bluebird), “The Heike Story” is animated in a deceptively simple style that nonetheless conveys the flavour of traditional styles of Japanese art along with a flavour of the vivid modes of dress for which the late Heian Period aristocracy were noted. Reducing the dense and difficult source material to 11 episodes was always going to be a particularly difficult challenge; and while the producers managed to mostly pull off this feat while maintaining a coherent storyline, those not familiar with either the Heike monogatari itself or its historical context may find that the ever-shifting cast of characters and/or the time-jumps resulting from the producers’ decisions about what to leave in or out, make following the story itself a little difficult. Nonetheless, Biwa as the central character forms a strong focus for the narrative that helps anchor this series; and it is through her transformation from rather powerless onlooker to teller of the Heike’s story that also drives the series to its moving and dramatic climax. Complimented by a rousing opening theme song performed by Japanese indie rock bank  Hitsujibungaku, “The Heike Story” is lovely to look at and compelling to watch, even for those who don’t get all the ins and outs of the complicated historical background.

Text © Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2021. All rights reserved.