cover image The Tale of the Heike

The Tale of the Heike

Trans. from the Japanese by Royall Tyler. Viking, $50 (734p) ISBN 978-0-670-02513-8

This modern translation of the Japanese medieval classic tracing the rise and fall of the Taira (Heike) clan reads like the Iliad filtered through Akira Kurosawa, with battlefield panoramas and personal tragedies captured in an exquisitely cinematic narrative. Eight centuries of oral tradition have transformed historical figures into legends, none more so than Taira no Kiyomori, the 12th-century warlord who, by suppressing rebellions and putting relatives into key positions, rises so quickly through the imperial hierarchy that he forgets fundamental principles of Japanese epics: earthly possessions are transient; fear the angry dead. Kiyomori dismisses his faithful mistress, destroys two temples, cuts off numerous heads, and moves the capital on a whim. While arrogance proves Kiyomori’s downfall, success beguiles the Minamoto (Genji) brothers, who defeat the Heike, then turn against one another. Memorable passages include descriptions of the dancer Gio, the old warhorse Yoshihisa, and the brave soldier Kumagai. Stories-within-stories highlight customs as varied as achieving redemption through renunciation and dressing the fashion-forward hero. Despite its antique style, readers will find themselves drawn into the book’s alternately delicate and brutal world, where there are degrees of emperor (emperor, retired emperor, cloistered emperor) and monks (esoteric monks, fighting monks, retired nobility who become monks). Following his noteworthy translation of The Tale of Genji, Tyler offers accessible language while observing literary tradition in names and format. To help both old hands and newcomers navigate the vibrant yet sometimes arduous masterpiece, he provides an introduction, character list, maps, genealogies, chronologies, footnotes, and glorious 19th-century illustrations. (Nov.)