OP: 「光るとき」 (Hikaru Toki ) by (Hitsuji Bungaku)
「平家にあらざるば人にあらず」 (Heike ni arazaruba hito ni arazu)
“If You Don’t Belong to the Heike, You Aren’t a Person “
This series is an odd one both for me and anime, in so many ways. First off, while it’s obviously been in development for some time this Heike Monogatari adaptation wasn’t revealed publicly until about a week ago – a week before the premiere. I’d already written my preview post (though fortunately hadn’t yet recorded the video). In fact as soon as I published that I then turned around and watched this episode, which is a first for me. I mean, technically this should be considered a summer series since it’s premiering in September, but there was no way I wasn’t going to preview it.
I’ve just written my longest season preview entry ever for any series about Heike Monogatari – I won’t rehash the whole thing here but I’d encourage you to read that for more detail about this story, this production, and my relationship with it. And there’s a lot. I unreservedly love the source material – I consider it the greatest of the Japanese classics and one of the greatest stories ever told. I’d also encourage you to read up a little on the Genpei War and the Heian Period generally (though there will be spoilers of course). It’s the most compelling time in Japanese history for me, and I’ve often wondered (not least on twitter) why it’s gotten so little attention in anime and manga. And Heike Monogatari virtually none.
Needless to say, when this series was announced I was stunned, thrilled, and nauseous all at the same time. Especially after I saw the preview. What I wanted more than anything – and have pleaded for – is a faithful adaptation. It immediately became clear this wasn’t it, and that rankled. To begin with this main character doesn’t exist in the original story, which is actually a collection or oral tales told by the blind Biwa Houshi storyteller monks. They were compiled in written form in the 14th Century, and this series is loosely based on the translation by Furukawa Hideo (who also wrote the Heike-themed novel Yuasa Masaaki’s upcoming film Inu-oh is based on) – the first ever to present Heike Monogatari in modern Japanese.
So then, this is an important series. To me, and to Japan, where the source material is universally known and taught in schools. The two species of Japanese firefly are called the Heike and the Genji after the Taira and Minamoto clans (Heike and Genji are alternative Kanji readings). It must be said that this is “Heike Monogatari” – it’s the story of the Taira, not the Minamoto who battled them. But the source material takes the form of Buddhist parable, lessons on impermanence and arrogance and cruelty and forgiveness. It judges, but it doesn’t take sides. This anime can take many liberties (and already is) and still succeed, but that’s one element that it absolutely cannot twist around. That’s the third rail.
What else must be remarked upon is the staff here. The director is Yamada Naoko, one of the great lions of Kyoto Animation. When one of those lions leaves KyoAni – especially now – that’s news. The writer is Yoshida Reiko, who should certainly need no introduction to anime fans as she’s one of the foremost writers in the industry. The music (and ED) is by Ushio Kensuke, outside of anime known by the stage name of agraph, and one of the most respected composers in the medium. It’s a stellar group, and we know Science SARU is capable of great work. We also know they’ve been in the news for adverse working conditions, and the cratering of the Nihon Chinbotsu 2020 production is evidence it’s been happening for a while. In that sense, this show is a crapshoot.
While I would obviously preferred it if Yoshida and Yamada had played it straight, they’ve chosen to recast the story around the original character of Biwa (Aoi Yuuki). She’s the daughter of a blind man, presumably a Biwa Houshi, who’s killed by the Kaburo – the roving band of Taira pageboys who roamed the capital searching for offenses against the clan. She also has one blue eye which can see the future, something her father forbade her to do. That eye has seem the decline and fall of the Heike, which makes little sense given that they were at the height of power – dominating the imperial court, the military, and the provinces.
The Heike are centered around Taira no Kiyomori (Tesshou Genda), the ambitious and fearless family head who shepherded the clan’s rise to power in the wake of their success suppressing the Hougen Rebellion. He’s planning to move to Fukuhara – present-day Kobe (about 30 minutes by Shinkansen but a day’s ride in the Heian Era) to build a deep-water port and expand the clan’s wealth and power through trade. He’s also planning to build an audacious shrine on the water at Miyajima, which would become Itsukushima Jinja – now a hugely popular pilgrimage site and tourist attraction. He turns affairs in Kyoto over to eldest son Shigemori (Sakurai Takahiro). He also has a roving blue eye – though there’s no historical record of that actually being the case.
Eventually the orphaned Biwa turns up at the Taira estate in Kyoto – to gloat, perhaps – but Shigemori sees the bond between them and takes a shine to her. He takes her in as his ward alongside his four sons, the most important of which are the cultured eldest Koremori (Miyu Irino) and second son Sukemori (Kobayashi Yumiko). It’s he who sets off the event which many consider the start of the Heike’s declining fortunes by accidentally disrespecting the emperor’s regent, causing the regent to order him savagely beaten. Shigemori is content to apologize and move on, but but Kiyomori has other ideas and humiliates the regent and his men by surrounding their procession and forcing them to cut off their topknots. The emperor is unsurprisingly less than pleased.
So, for all that, how does this premiere episode actually work? It’s superb for the most part – not quite transcendent, but certainly classy and often visually stunning. If you’re going to shoehorn an original protagonist in, getting Aoi Yuuki doesn’t hurt, as she’s one of the best seiyuu around – but I still have my doubts about Biwa. The cast seems strong generally, the music is lovely, and the direction and animation are quite striking. It plays as more Science SARU than Kyoto Animation but there are elements of Yamada’s signature that slip through. She employs a lot of live-action (her first love) techniques, and generally favors looseness and snap over gently flowing classicism.
There was almost no way Heike Monogatari wasn’t going to be an order of magnitude more interesting than most anime, and it is. It can’t really be judged by the usual standard because it’s not trying to do things TV anime often do. There are legit questions about Science SARU’s ability to sustain a production, and if the reports of 11 episodes are true that’s not nearly enough time to do the source material justice – if indeed that’s something Yamada and Yoshida intend to try to do. There’s also the matter of whether their original twist on a peerless source material will work, and we won’t know the answer for a while. But this is certainly something special, something important, and something unique in anime. Let’s hope we look back on it as something great, too.
ED: 「unified perspective」 by (agraph feat. ANI)
11 episode to retell the Heike Monogatari? Well, it wouldn’t be enough to conclude the Gion Shoja line. I wish this adaptation was based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s
Watching shows like this gives me hope that anime as a medium isn’t dead.
This was very well done.