Heike Monogatari is about the Taira clan, also known as the Heike, holds immense authority over Japan. When a young girl, gifted with an odd eye that allows her to see the future, foolishly disrespects the clan, her father pays the price of her crime with his life. Soon after, as fate would have it, Taira no Shigemori—the eldest son of the clan leader—stumbles upon the same unfortunate girl, who now calls herself “Biwa.” Biwa informs him that the downfall of the Heike is imminent. After learning of the great injustice Biwa suffered at the Heike’s hands, Shigemori vows to take her in and care for her rather than let her be killed.
In an era of rising military tension, the Heike are in the midst of a cunning struggle for power, and bloodstained war is on the horizon. Shigemori, whose eyes allow him to see spirits of the dead, is both anxious and hopeful to prevent his clan’s demise. Biwa, however, is reluctant to reveal the future to him and must adapt to her new life filled with both happiness and sorrow in this pivotal chapter in Japanese history.
I Love Japan, people always say that, but they hardly know anything about Japan. Stop for a second and think, do you want to have even the slightest understanding of the country you claim to love so much? If you do not want to understand Japan, then just do not waste your time on this series. If you do, I am glad that there are people like you and this review will be for you. The Heike Monogatari is a great opportunity for you to know more about Japan. Even though, it will not be easy, it will only make the victory tastier. What makes The Heike Story difficult to understand? Let us see into it.
The Heike Story is not just some random anime about some random events. The Tale of the Heike focuses on the struggle for power between the Heike and the Genji houses in the late twelfth century. It is considered one of the most influential literary works in Japanese literature. The Tale of the Heike gave birth to a number of other Japanese literary works. In fact, there are so many of them that no one will be able to name them all, but many Japanese know, at least, something about the epic and those who are not Japanese and are not knowledgeable in Japanese history, might feel a little bit lost, and it is totally okay.
For the record, the “Heike Monogatari” was written in the Middle Ages the is based on historical events preceding and during the Gempei War of late 12th century. The story is sometimes referred to as “Japan’s Iliad”, and just as how in the West everybody knows how the Trojan War ended, everybody in Japan knows the final fate of the Heike clan. All this to say, “spoilers” are a moot point given you can learn the plot with a quick internet search.
The crux of the tension in this adaptation of “The Heike Monogatari” is that our main character knows how the story is going to end thanks to her oracular eye- which I find to be an interesting take on the original material. Rather than try to work around the fact that the ending can be found in any Japanese history textbook and surprising the audience is a lost cause, the plot fully embraces that fact by making its audience-surrogate character knowledgeable as well and building the story around that fact instead. That switch-up keeps things fresh without having to take major liberties with the source material.
Although Biwa is the “main character” she functions primarily as an audience stand-in. From a meta perspective, she’s there so that characters from the original story will have a good reason to explain crucial plot and character details which otherwise they would not need to discuss. Her foreknowledge of the ending and the tension and dramatic irony it provides are also crucial elements of her character.
Finally, she serves as a crucial “point of reference” due to the fact that other characters can be expected to pop in and out of overarching plot regularly. Given that there are small hints that she will be re-telling the events of the story long in the future, it is unlikely she will do much beyond the observer role in the anime- with all the characters and plot points in the original work going on there would be little space to fit her into the existing story anyway. It’s best to think of her as the character from over whose shoulder you watch the main story.
Keeping up with the rest of the cast can require some foreknowledge of the “Heike Monogatari” or at least a bit of active attention. The various people Biwa interacts with are usually given sufficient characterization and background information for the audience to understand how they all fit into the larger picture, so this anime doesn’t suffer from “Continuity lockout” for those who don’t know the source material. Go in expecting something like “Legend of the Galactic Heroes” where there is a large cast with no single main character around which everything revolves and who is supposed to be there for the entire time.
Art & Sound
Science Saru delivers their unique aesthetic and fluid animation in spades here, perfectly complemented by Naoko Yamada’s mastery of stillness and quiet. This anime can move beautifully, but also knows when the story is best served by stopping and taking a breath. I’ve never been one who can break down precise animation and sound choices in any detail, so if you need somebody who can provide and deep-dive on production values you’ll need to look elsewhere. Just that I that think both animation and sound display top-tier talent.
I’m getting older as an anime fan. High school ended for me over a decade ago and even college is now starting to be mentally classified as “A while back”. Every now and then I stop and wonder if a point will come when I finally age out of the anime community. But then I find something like this, something that reminds me animation can cover all kinds of stories for all ages, something to invest in even after the high school romcoms and college student in another world stories no longer resonate.
This anime may not be built for explosive mass popularity, it may not slot easily into some easily marketable form, but for those of us who want something different in our anime, the Heike Monogatari is a must-watch.