Friday, 29 January 2016

Book Review: The Heike Story by Yoshikawa Eiji review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

We all tend to think of the past as “good old times” and easily forget that our ancestors often had much harder and more dangerous lives than we have today. The proof: leafing through any history book we find a succession of bloody wars, terrible pandemics, natural disasters and migration waves. Some historical events and their heroes became the subjects of legends like the story of the rise and fall of the Heike clan in twelfth-century Japan passed on from generation to generation in scattered poems that were assembled only two hundred years later. The Heike Story by Yoshikawa Eiji retells in modern – fictionalised – style the ancient tale of war and peace surrounding the warrior Heita Kiyomori who led the poor clan of the Heike through wars and court intrigues to wealth, power and glory provoking the anger and envy of the rival Genji clan that he almost erased.

Yoshikawa Eiji (吉川 英治) was born Yoshikawa Hidetsugu (吉川 英次) in Kuragi, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, in August 1892. Already at the age of eleven he was forced to leave school and work for a living in the docks of Yokohama. Later he moved to Tōkyō to learn the trade of gold lacquerer and discovered his liking for comic haiku. He made his literary debut writing poetry, but in 1914 his novel 江の島物語 (The Tale of Enoshima) in a renowned contest and won the first prize. As from 1921 he worked as a journalist and got more seriously into writing. The novels 親鸞 (1922; Life of Shinran), 剣難女難 (1925; Sword Trouble, Woman Trouble), and 鳴門秘帖 (1933; Secret Record of Naruto) established him as an author, but only his historical novels made him famous. Musashi: An Epic Novel of the Samurai Era (宮本武藏) appeared in serialised from from 1936 through 1939 and was followed by 三國志 (1939-40; Romance of the Three Kingdoms) and Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan (新書太閣記: 1941). Internationally noted are also The Heike Story: A Modern Translation of the Classic Tale of Love and War (新平家物語: 1951) and Fragments of a Past: A Memoir (忘れ残りの記: 1957). Yoshikawa Eiji died in Tōkyō, Japan, in September 1962.

In the twelfth century the Japanese capital Kyōtō is a nest of vipers where ex-Emperors scheme against Emperors and courtiers do the same to seize power, but it’s the disdained warriors who tip the scales. The Heike Story recounts the life of the warrior Heita Kiyomori who was born into this world of intrigue as the eldest son of Tadamori, head of the Heike clan. However, they live in great poverty and disharmony.
 “As early as he could remember, their home at Imadegawa, in the purlieus of the capital, had been a miserable ruin; the leaking roofs had not been repaired for more than ten years; the untended gardens ran wild with weeds, and the decaying house has been the scene of unending quarrels between his father and mother.” 
Kiyomori attributed their shameful poverty to his father’s indolence and lack of ambition just as much as to his mother’s grand airs and extravagance, but growing up he realises that there’s more to it. One night Morito, a schoolmate from the Imperial Academy, reveals to Kiyomori the rumours concerning his true descent either from ex-Emperor Shirakawa or from a priest of Gion. Following this discovery, his talkative mother leaves the house and the family’s fate takes a turn for the better. Tadamori makes a new start resuming service with the Imperial Guards. Gradually he improves his standing at court and paves the way for Kiyomori who is now an Imperial Guard too. Step by step Kiyomori works his way up making clever choices as to whom he associates with and supports in the constant struggles for power between abdicated, cloistered and current Emperors along with their governments. Thus over the years Kiyomori gains influence at court as well as wealth not just for himself but for his entire family excluding all other warrior clans and surpassing even nobility. When Kiyomori is in his early fifties, the Heike clan is at the height of its power… and the rival Genji clan prepares to challenge them at last and take revenge.

As fictionalised account of true events from the twelfth century The Heike Story sets out to make this decisive and rather chaotic period of Japanese history as it was passed on in The Tale of the Heike more accessible to modern readers. Covering over thirty years in the protagonist's life, it necessarily is a multi-layered and very complex story that includes a great number of characters and plotlines, and yet, the author managed with great skill to avoid confusion and to evoke the time in clear as well as vivid images. Unfortunately, the novel often feels amazingly shallow and incoherent considering that it is from the pen of a writer generally praised for his detailed and engrossing style. This isn’t the author’s fault, though. Not knowing Japanese I – unfortunately – couldn’t read the original work and I was disappointed when I found out that my English edition (to my knowledge the only one produced so far) wasn’t an authentic translation but really an abridged version adapted to the presumed poor knowledge, limited cultural understanding and mainstream taste of non-Japanese readers. It’s like the translator censored the contents of the book omitting scenes and removing less important characters together with the events surrounding them! Moreover, it is incomplete because it was done before the last instalments of the original Japanese novel went into print.

Despite the obvious deficiencies of the English edition of The Heike Story by Yoshikawa Eiji, which didn’t give me any chance to judge the qualities of the writer’s original plot and style, I enjoyed this novel of war and peace in twelfth-century Japan more than enough to recommend it. Admittedly, it’s disappointing that ancient Japanese culture including the religious side is a bit neglected in it – certainly thanks to the translator –, but nonetheless, the novel allows an interesting glimpse of Japanese history and the country’s cultural heritage. So it’s well worth reading it.

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