We’ve had a moderate array of various historical anime coming out – from Demon Slayer being set in the Taishō period, to the Yashahime series, much as with its source material in Inuyasha, being set at an ambiguous point in the Warring States period. What we haven’t gotten in a while is anything set in the Heian period – enter The Heike Story, an anime series that, basically, tells of the end of the Heian period, adapting the Heike Monogatari, and telling the tragic fall of the Heike through both their own hubris, and the machinations of others.
While the title of the series, in Japanese, is Heike Monogatari, same as the work of literature – the localization of that title “The Heike Story” is a better fit, as while the series incorporates the text of the Heike Monogatari into the narrative, it is a series that steps outside of that story. The mechanism of this is the point of view character, Biwa, a young girl who also plays a Biwa, and is first introduced when her father is killed by random foot soldiers of the Heike. She ends up being taken into the Taira household and thus ends up in a position to see the various figures who end up heading up the family, at various points, as these events go on.
Biwa also has heterochromia, with one of her eyes granting her the ability to see the future, to a limited degree. This leads to the narrative of The Heike Story being interspersed with elements from the text of Heike Monogatari, done by what is strongly implied (and later made explicit text) to be an older Biwa, performing elements of the Heike Monogatari describing some of the events – some of which she couldn’t have been present to see, but others she does end up being present for.
Biwa becoming part of the Heike household also allows for the strongest suit of the story, in how The Heike Story differs from its source material – the humanization of the Heike. As much as the battles and larger-than-life feats of the Heike Monogatari are part of the story that is adapted, much of the series pulls on the idea of humanizing these figures who, certainly the Japanese audience would have been familiar with from history books and textbooks. Viewing them from that perspective, though, gives a lot of emotional distance, to the point that often we forget that these people are just people.
It is, in a way, somewhat Hamilton-esque, in the sense that going into Hamilton there were likely some members of the audience that just viewed Alexander Hamilton as an Important Historical Figure, instead of Some Guy who became an Important Historical Figure. Now, that said, the presentation of musical theater tends still tends to build up the characters in those works into more grandiose figures, no matter what other intent is meant by the creators. The Heike Story doesn’t do that.
We spend a lot of time with these members of the family as they grow up, starting as children, and see them being thrust into leading armies at a much younger age than we as the audience feel comfortable doing so – in their teens – and so we see them as frightened people surrounded by bloodshed and death, in an environment where they aren’t allowed to experience fear. It forces us to re-contextualize our perception of these historical figures, who they were, how they lived, and ultimately what lead to their deaths, and to reconsider other figures as well.
This is all helped from some absolutely solid animation through the series – giving everything a much more painted quality – giving the work a feel like it’s come out of some historical paintings of the period, even if the behavior of the characters is not what you’d expect from that period – making that contrast – between the grounded writing and the sweeping visuals, brought into sharper relief.
Ultimately, The Heike Story is a tragedy about tragedies, that the people we see when we watch a tragedy are just that – people. Their failings aren’t grandiose flaws beyond those of mere mortals, they’re the flaws we possess as well, even if we don’t find ourselves in the position to hold fates of armies in our hands. It is not to say we shouldn’t judge those figures for their failures. Instead, when we see those failures shown on a just a grand scale, we should think of them as a different form of memento more. Remember, you too are mortal. Remember, you too are fallible.
The Heike Story is currently available for streaming on Funimation.
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