「諸行無常」 (Shogyō Mujō)
“The Impermanence of Worldly Things”
I may as well start off with a positive note-a final formal battle between the Minamoto and the Taira on the waters at Dan-no-ura (the violence between the clans didn’t stop there). This was the best battle scene in this whole adaptation. With small details like water dripping from Yoshitsune’s armor, the relentless waves of ocean and arrows, and the ominous music, I could feel the dread of waiting to be smashed by the fist of fate (or more like the fist of the Minamoto). In the thick of this battle, Kiyomori’s wife walks in her husband’s footsteps, prioritizing the family honor over life, preferring to drown the Emperor while he was still Emperor, rather than giving him up to the enemy to be alive, through dethroned. The little child innocently following his grandmother to the mythical dragon palace under the waves was heart wrenching. If the Taira didn’t believe it before, now they have no choice but to acknowledge that their power has ended. If the anime had given the time and animation to the other major battles that they gave to this one and cut out the superfluous fluff with Biwa, I would have enjoyed the show a lot better. It would have better captured (for me at least) the spirit of Heike Monogatari as a battle epic.
Heike Monogatari is not just a battle epic-it is also a political drama of the fierce war between families who had become too powerful for their own good. This character drama was lost in the caricatures. With Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa as a man-baby, Tokuko as the holy one, Munemori as the buffoon, and Yoritomo as the spineless pawn (to name but a few), the intense drama driven by legendary characters turned into a farce acted out by superficial, paper thin versions of the original forms.
The anime’s ending did nothing to help that. With the serene meeting between Go-Shirakawa and Tokuko complete with a happy family flashback and Go-Shirakawa’s newfound devotion, it had “happy ever after ending” garishly painted all over it. To me, such a happy ever after ending glosses over the horror of the carnage and dampened the impact of the brilliant, atrocious scheming on both sides. This made the Genpei Wars seem cozy, like a fierce lawn war between opposing factions in the local homeowners’ association. While this scene was taken directly from the book, the book handled it (and everything else about the tale) with balance, so that the peace and redemption existed side by side with the gravity of everything that came prior to that. Ending the anime on a glowing note defied the atmosphere of the historical tale-Heike Monogatari is not a happy story and we’ve caught at least glimpses of that through the numerous deaths up to this point.
By ending the series where it did, the adaptation made it seem like everything ended with Dan-no-ura- which it most certainly did not. Munemori and his son’s life did not end under the sea-they were captured, paraded through town, and then executed by the Minamoto. The Minamoto were so intent on rooting out any possible future rebellions that they ordered a horrifying slaughter of all boy children in the Taira clan-everyone from the tiniest infant up to older children and grown adults were ruthlessly murdered. In skipping past this amongst other scenes, the anime removed the claws from the Minamoto. While the tale is entitled Heike Monogatari, it involves not just the Taira, but also the Minamoto. With the rushed ending, it felt as if having gotten to the end of the Taira, nothing else mattered. For them, this was only ever about the Taira with the Minamoto serving as support characters.
The aftermath of Dan-no-ura did not spell a happy ending for some of the Minamoto, either. It was after that point that the conflict between Yoritomo and Yoshitsune which was simmering under the surface the whole time finally reached its boiling point when Yoritomo began to suspect Yoshitsune of scheming rebellion, sending Yoshitsune on the run. Of course, they skipped completely past this in the anime. They really gave Yoshitsune the short end of the stick. Not only did they give him just a small appearance in the last few episodes- overlooking his tactical genius in numerous battles, they also left out the legendary account of Yoshitsune leaping over boats to evade Noritsune (who isn’t even shown). This is such a well-known scene-there are numerous cultural references, paintings, and so on relating to Yoritsune’s jump, that I don’t see how they could have left it out.
I realize that the majority of my perspective is on what was not in the anime more than what was in it, which really tells you more about the book than the show. However, I feel that what was left out of or glossed over in the anime as well as the foolishness of trying to adapt it in a measly 11 episodes says much about the adaptation as an introductory survey interpreted by 21st century minds.
Using caricatures to retell scenes of the characters’ feelings and relationships while breezing past blood-pumping battles gave off the feeling of a moralistic folktale, Disney-style (they even had a cute, intelligent animal with that cat in the previous episode). The villains (Kiyomori) receive their dues, the misguided characters (Go-Shirakawa) repent and turn their lives around, and the good, purehearted princess (Empress Tokuko) endures all evil to be rewarded with peace and joy in the end. The problem is not that there is a happy ending or that there is a moral to it. The anime took its ending from the book and with monks as the author, the tale is definitely moralistic in its exploration of the fall of the mighty and exaltation of the holy. The axe I have to grind with the series is the execution of it (pun intended)-but I’ve ranted enough about the simplistic characterizations and storytelling that one-dimensionalizes everything. As the old adage goes “The book is always better”.
Being a generally positive person, I like to try to find the good in everything- even this. For one thing, I found the animation, especially the color palettes used, to be quite stunning. For another thing, from what some readers have commented, this adaptation has done a good job at making what might otherwise be an intimidating story accessible and engaging to new audiences. If it inspires more people to read the epic book and to learn more about the history, then I am glad at least something positive came out of this.