The Heike Story is easily the most striking anime of the fall season and one of the most unique shows of 2021. Its tale of love, war, and tragedy told amidst a backdrop of feudal Japan is downright mesmerizing, but equally impressive is the “story” this anime is based on. We’re not talking about a recent manga or light novel, or even a book written in the past century. No, Heike Monogatari (平家物語) is a tale that dates as far back as 14th century Japan and is widely regarded as one of the most important pieces of medieval Japanese literature equivalent to something like the Odyssey for Western literature. The more you understand this historic story upon which this anime is based, the more you realize just how incredible The Heike Story is.
Heike Monogatari tells of the rise and fall of the Heike clan during the 12th century Genpei War in Japan. It didn’t start off as a literary work, however, but was instead passed down orally by traveling monks that were often accompanied by the biwa instrument. Our anime original protagonist’s name, Biwa, is an homage to these early storytellers that were oh so pivotal for preserving the tale in its early days.
Biwa’s ultimate fate that leaves her blind is also in respect to the blind monk Kakuichi, whose recounting of the tale was recorded in 1371 and would go on to be considered the definitive written version.
Biwa is much more than just a bundle of nods and references, though. She is the conduit through which the viewer experiences a tale that you quite possibly already have an intimate amount of knowledge of already, especially if you’re Japanese-born and raised. Biwa can see the future and knows how everything will play it, yet is helpless to do anything about it no matter how much she may want to. The frustration and sadness of watching loved ones march on to their demise resonates powerfully from her soul to yours because you also know how everything ends. The only difference is that Biwa sees the future while we see the past but neither of us can change either of those.
One of the core principles of Heike Monogatari — and even one of its opening lines — is impermanence among all things. The way prominent and important characters die unceremoniously with little to no fanfare and the fact Biwa’s supernatural presence changes nothing only reinforces this theme. Even those unfamiliar with the original story, like the vast majority of the Western audience, can grasp these themes because of just how well-positioned Biwa is within the story. She leaves a lasting impression on those around her and has a presence that cannot be ignored. Yet she is a single flower petal at the mercy of the tides of history. The fact Biwa doesn’t feel like an empty calories character but still doesn’t affect the overall tale of the original Heike Monogatari is a testament to Science SARU’s story-telling.
Equally impressive is Science SARU’s dedication to its unique animation style for this retelling. The flat colors lacking detailed shading and rather simplistic character designs are reminiscent of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. As the medium grew in prominence throughout the 18th and 19th centuries of Japan, Heike Monogatari became an understandably popular subject of portrayal.
Pivotal and famous scenes naturally got the most attention, such as the Genji archer Nasu no Yoichi shooting a flag held atop a pole by a Heike woman during the Battle of Yashima. Another poignant chapter was when the Genji warrior Kumagae Naozane challenged the fleeing Heike clansman Taira no Atsumori to a duel. Atsumori was only sixteen years old and when Kumagae caught a glimpse of his youthfulness he was reminded of his own son. After bringing down the final blow he was reminded of the impermanence of human life; Kumagae later retired to become a monk. Both these scenes are also captured in The Heike Story anime.
Ukiyo-e artists also made sure to render battles on the macro scale, depicting the wide-sweeping scale of these conflicts. Numerous panning shots of The Heike Story anime also mimic these sort of frantic prints.
On the flip side, some of the more quiet moments of the story were also captured by artists, such as this scene of Taira no Koremori as he sits in silent reflection, fully aware of the imminent downfall of his clan.
Given the translated version of Heike Monogatari numbers around 800 pages, it’s amazing that Science SARU was able to condense it into an 11 episode anime series at all. The fact that The Heike Story anime so effectively encapsulates and conveys the original work’s core principles while still establishing itself as a distinct piece of media is nothing short of astounding. It’s a truly wondrous peek into medieval Japanese literature that a Western audience so rarely gets, and conveys loud and clear why the original work is such a classic.