Storytelling in the Midst of History: Reflections on Heike Monogatari

This article is a special guest piece by Awayfarer. You can read their blog about animation and videogames here.

While the initial reception has been relatively subdued, many will no doubt look back on Heike Monogatari both for what it is and for what it represents; a significant work of animated cinema which marks a new beginning in director Naoko Yamada’s career. To that end, the sakuga community has already set out analyzing the significance of Yamada’s exit from Kyoto Animation in view of the outside industry’s inability to realize her naturalistic animation philosophy with any degree of consistency. But while the complex realities of the show’s production certainly merit critical attention, what most interests me about Heike Monogatari is not its place in the history of Japanese animation but the way it uses the medium of animated cinema to present us with a living image of history itself.

To be sure, the Science Saru-produced prestige project must be understood as a product of the present, with its seemingly endless prospects  of industrial, economic, political, and creative crises. It is also born of a tragic past, with Yamada’s personal experience of the Kyoto Animation arson attack conspicuously reflected in the work itself. But these difficult conditions are precisely  why it is no surprise to find that the show is infused with a melancholy awareness of our individual and collective responsibility to times and people beyond the now.

On the face of it, Heike Monogatari is no doubt Yamada’s most conceptually involved, visually daring, and thematically mature work yet. “On the face of it”, I say, as the director’s long-time preoccupation with young-adult “popular” material has in no way deferred her emergence as a visionary auteur. On the contrary, albeit based on a financially, conceptually and aesthetically entrenched property, the ironic fate of her last major work at Kyoto Animation was that it deviated so significantly from the source material in all these aspects as to establish itself as a quintessential anime arthouse film. That is to say, with Liz and the Bluebird Yamada used studio-specific genre and aesthetic convention to transformative effect, working within a familiar framework precisely in order to challenge its defining limits and basic assumptions – ultimately putting into question the reality of animated film itself. (1)

Heike Monogatari extends these formal experiments by turning them inward. That is to say, the deviant nature of the series is such that it stands out not from the industry norm but from the rest of Yamada’s oeuvre. Most notably, the anime eschews figural idealization in favor of expressionistic stylization. Indeed, its historically rooted themes and aesthetics – far removed from Kyoto Animation’s pristine in-house style – are in many ways a testimony to the appeal of human imperfection. This shift, brought on by external as well as internal circumstances, breaks new ground for Yamada by openly rejecting some of her most familiar conventions. And yet the end result is unmistakably infused with the director’s iconic motifs and sensibilities. The aforementioned focus on naturalistic character work, the aestheticized use of bokeh depth of field, the temporally distilled drama, and so on, are all characteristic hallmarks. Heike Monogatari can be therefore seen not only as an illustrative case study of the material co-determination of creative context and auteur creation; it also changes how we look at Yamada’s whole body of work. By transplanting recurring techniques, motifs, and foci into a new and radically distinct paradigm, this unlikely effort offers a different basis for, and thereby a fresh perspective on, the director’s singular approach to cinematic storytelling.

Historiography as Animated Cinema

The primary theme of this rendition of The Tale of the Heike is the retelling of the titular story. It is precisely a re-telling, a transformative adaptation that thematizes its own historical meaning, role and origin by telling a story about the way storytelling enables the depiction and reimagination of history. By re-presenting the classic tale in the form of animated cinema, the anime ties its own means of presentation to its very purpose – the re-animation of an image of history. Consequently, just as Yamada concerns herself with film form, Heike Monogatari’s storytelling is necessarily interwoven with and reflective of the art of filmmaking.

When the first episode arrived, I shared my view on how the form and substance of the show’s animation reflects an active historical consciousness, and how many of the creative choices can be understood as a desire to incorporate eastern art history and tradition into a modern anime aesthetic. I remain particularly taken by the color design, which shines with the wonderfully desaturated hues of inky scroll-paintings. Naturally, the achievement of this impressionistic texture makes for a tense conjunction with Yamada’s personal pursuit of photogrammatic “realism”, living spaces, and gestural naturalism. However, much like the director’s overt use of flower language, this deliberate overlaying of aesthetics is not only artistically compelling but serves to push the construction of the show’s historical imagery to the foreground in a manner that is reflective of the thematic core of the story.

That story, the original Tale of the Heike, is classic in the canonical sense: more than a mere chronicle of the Genpei War, it remains a foundational text of Japanese literary history. Narratively, the tale depicts the rise and fall of the Taira clan, also known as the Heike, in the turbulent period before the establishment of the shogunate. Thematically, the work contrasts the (in)glorious conflicts of man with the cosmic insignificance of mankind itself (“The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind”). It is, in other words, at once a historical tome, a dramatic epic and a melancholic paean on the conflicting unity of (human) nature and politics within Buddhist cosmology.

Realism and Reality in Animation

The aforementioned existential framework, symbolized by the ephemerality of the aforementioned flowers, serves to illustrate both the personal and structural tragedies of the human condition. In the hands of Yamada and writer Reiko Yoshida, however, the tale is humanized in a new and important way; namely, in the sense that it is first and foremost a story about “real people”. Remarkably, there are no true villains: even the mythically evil Kiyomori – the head of the Heike and the primary instigator of the conflict – is presented as a deeply imperfect human being. More broadly, while the members of the cast are generally defined by traditional virtues and vices, the show is at pains to depict them as living people in their own right. To that end, emperors and servants alike exist in an unvarnished state, irreducibly unique in their personalities and mannerisms, defined equally by their solemnity and silliness, their cruelty and compassion, their fearfulness and foolishness.

Suffice to say, this sense of dramatic realism cannot be conflated with a false claim to historical reality. Indeed, the very first episode foregrounds the self-evidently artificial and anti-illusory nature of animation by having one of the “real people” ironize over their own existence as an animated character: “Those outside our clan are not real people,” says the hand-drawn image of a person whose very words is an artistic construct. This overt subversion of immersion – which discloses the anime’s (ir)reality as animation by dispelling its claim to naive realism, is an open demonstration of Heike Monogatari’s commitment to the truth of animation as a creative construct. At the same time, the fact that the medium of animation enables the creation of real images, including (un)realistic images of (un)real people, enables it to critically engage in, reflect on and intervene in reality. By capturing the inherently imperfect reality of human coexistence, Heike Monogatari eschews naive idealism in favor of a decidedly anti-humanistic view of political history. In other words, it harbors no illusions to the inevitable rise of an enlightened humanity. Furthermore, the feminist perspective that always permeates Yamada’s work is notably complexified by the politics of the setting, with the prominent threat of (sexual) violence a constant factor and women’s resistance to the ruling patriarchy generally reduced to active forms of passivity, i.e. the deliberately ambiguous act of “exiting society” through either religious seclusion or suicide.

The anime thus takes a clear political stand, staging a historic intervention that criticizes both the aristocracy and the patriarchy from within by laying bare the irrationality, corruption, oppression, incompetence, and violence of the traditional system. This critical “realism” comes to a head in the following assertion: “The capital is where the Emperor is.” First uttered by Tokuko, the mother of the child emperor, this nominalistic argument betrays the aristocracy’s unwitting internalization of their “sacred” right to rule. In truth, the sanctity of the throne, like the rule of law itself, is an ideological chimera – it is neither natural nor necessary but depends on a specific social order. Given this, the anime calls attention to the absurdity of the Heike’s claim by placing it in stark relief to the cutthroat reality of wartime power politics. Not only is the right to rule in feudal society necessarily a function of military force, which the Heike are at this point lacking, but the royalty itself normally places political authority in the hands of the family elder, with the “reigning” emperor being a mere figurehead.

The uncompromising treatment of this issue demonstrates the depth of Heike Monogatari’s political consciousness: it exposes the tacit knowledge that the law is not natural but conventional, that authority is a social phenomenon, and that a name or title is just that – robbed of its systemic context it is but a naked sign, devoid of intrinsic power. Of course, within the drama, this insight comes too late: faced with the reality of their situation, it is precisely the loss of prestige, or social status within the system, that seals the fate of the Heike nobility. For us outside viewers, however, the ideological nature of their dilemma and the inefficacy of their “solution” remains plain to see. In the end, just as the flames of war rage on even after Kiyomori’s death, the real source of evil is not any personal malice but the interpersonal reality of social pressures and oppressive structures that compel and enable violence as a means and measure of personal prestige and power.

The Art of Adaptation

I have seen people whose interests are vested in the original Tale of the Heike complain about the liberties taken by the anime. That is fair enough; while the heart of the tragedy remains, there is no denying that this retelling is very different. Even so, it must be admitted that change is the nature of adaptation. As the process of materially transferring and translating a source text from one context to another – of making it available in a new form, to different people, in another era, through a new medium – the art of adaptation gives new life and meaning to history by transforming it into a concern of the present.

In this case, working with a revered piece of classical literature, the creative choice of what to do with the source material – selecting, distilling and compressing what can and should be carried over into a format as limited as TV animation – is a weighty responsibility that must, by nature, involve a measure of interpretative violence. To this end, the anime in fact recasts not only the political but also the narrative logic of the source material. By loosening the dramatic structure and changing the order of events, it presents the unfolding narrative in a functionally non-narrative manner. The spectacle of great battles and other politically calamitous episodes are notably deprioritized, with the nationally devastating escalation of the war effort ultimately serving as the backdrop for an intimate view of the affected characters’ daily life-experiences. The end result of these changes is not a romantic or even comprehensive chronology of events so much as it is a tapestry of stories in which tragedies large and small are a function of (inter)personal failings.

This is not to say that the anime is perfect, or that certain changes are not (necessarily) reductive, but I must stress that the end result is anything but simplistic. As I hope to have made evident, unqualified charges concerning a putative lack of nuance, finesse or subtlety in the treatment of the material are ironic in that they betray a lack of awareness of these very features on the part of the critic. Again, it is fair to have preferences – the often unspoken nature of Yamada’s storytelling certainly does operate in a different register than the original’s lyrical drama – but, to use a symbolically pertinent metaphor, the animated show does not “water down” the source material so much as it uses it as a wellspring for the construction of a unique and highly distinctive adaptation.

The Truth of Biwa’s Storytelling

That said, it must be noted that the anime’s method of reinterpretation and representation is fundamentally true to the spirit of The Tale of the Heike – an orally transmitted folk story of unknown authorship. Indeed, while the tale has been handed down through the written word, its pre-history reveals it to have always been a living record – one that changed with time, even as it endured through the ages. Reflecting this, Heike Monogatari thematizes its place within and in relation to tradition through its choice of subject, opting to center this age-old story on an entirely new element: The little girl called “Biwa”.

Adopted into the Heike household, Biwa immediately stands out for what she is: a foreign presence. The face of Heike Monogatari is in many ways an unconventional protagonist; less a narrative agent so much as an observer of events. But that is only half of it; outside the diegetic present, she is also the singer-narrator of the entire drama. In both roles, Biwa’s liminal half-presence is a creative insert – that is, she, the storyteller, is not part of the original story. Thus the crucial question: Why did the anime, otherwise committed to a sense of historical verisimilitude, center itself on this oddity of a guest character?

By focusing on Biwa – a girl who dresses like a boy; a homeless pauper who is adopted into an aristocratic family; an ageless spirit-child – the anime opens up a multitude of new perspectives, enabling it to take on issues relating to gender, class, authority, and so on. But it also renders itself capable of making visible its own relation to history.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of The Tale of the Heike will know that Biwa represents the historical figure of the “biwa hōshi” – the group of blind monk-bards who, according to a legend of their own making, originally told the story of the Genpei War. True to her origin, the heterochromatic Biwa is the perfect chronicler: gifted with the mystical ability to see beyond the present and armed with her namesake instrument, she is a literal medium and witness of history who gives form and voice to the story at hand.

Given this, the anime can be seen to use Biwa’s art of storytelling as a self-reflective vehicle for its own cinematic mediation of the tale. Of course, there is a problem with this: Biwa is not a real historical figure, past or present. In fact, as a “real person”, she is but an image of animation itself. But does this fact signal that she cannot tell the truth, or that her story cannot be a true part of history? Surely not. For Biwa’s story to be false, it would have to paint a false picture of reality. But, as noted, there is nothing deceptive about Heike Monogatari’s reconstruction of its source material. Rather, the show takes inspiration from history, what is known of the original tale and its tellers, in order to spin a mythopoetic yarn about these very things. It recreates history by transforming it into a story – but it also uses that story to show how history itself is created through storytelling. In other words, what Heike Monogatari shows us is not factually true, but the self-evident nature of that fact itself reveals a great deal about the construction, transmission and reception of historical truth.

Fictional or not, it is essential for a storyteller to be alive, situated, and partial. Biwa is able to tell the story of her lived experience only and precisely because she does, indeed, have a (human) perspective. As she, herself, says: “I met all of you and knew you. So I will just tell what I saw and heard.” Coming from a fictional character, this claim is of course paradoxical. But the obviousness of the “lie” is precisely the point: the truth must be told even though there is no “true” form of storytelling. Even if Biwa herself represents the idea of a perfect view on history, she too must rely on imperfect means – words, images, memories, intonations – to transfer her truth. This, in turn, is suggestive of the following reality: History is not factual, simply or merely, but must be understood, also, as a creative construct. Given that the past is gone, absent from the present, it follows that it must be re-imagined and re-presented in the form of a story. The subsequent construction of a historical image is inherently and openly distinct from the original – it is a transformative work, and this power to transform reality is the truth of art.

The True Teller(s) of the Story

That said, while Biwa’s story might be true, it is not hers alone. On the contrary, because she is obviously meta-fictional, she is inherently a reference to the true teller(s) of the – including, to be sure, the director of Heike Monogatari. I am not saying Biwa is an image of Yamada, but rather that she represents a form of storytelling in which Yamada engages. This, however, begs the following question: if Yamada’s work is about communication, what does this story tell us about her filmmaking? What, and how, is she communicating through the medium of animated cinema?

It is surely no coincidence that Biwa’s role as a visionary-musician storyteller reflects the structure of the cinema as such. As Yamada herself never fails to remind us, the art of filmmaking consists in the combination of image and sound, photography and phonography, into a single form of art. This formal unity is expressed not only through Biwa’s musical artistry: It is a theme that runs through Yamada’s whole body of work, from K-On! to Liz. (2) Indeed, the Japanese title for her prior film, A Silent Voice – literally, “The Shape of Voice” – perfectly expresses the essential overlaying of sound-image forms in Yamada’s filmmaking. It is therefore not too much to say that for her the overarching concern is not simply “communication” in the abstract, as spoken (invisible) or body (visible) language, but what can be expressed through their (dis)unity in the form of animated cinema.

What Heike Monogatari is attempting to communicate must therefore be viewed through the lens of the question: what can be accomplished via the cinematic conjunction of oral and visual modes of storytelling? Or, put differently: why is this story – this image of history given life as an animated motion picture? Or, again: why does The Tale of the Heike deserve an enduring place in our living memory?

“Pray. Even if you can’t do anything.”

Given its responsibility to history, the anime adaptation of Heike Monogatari naturally remains what it was: at once a historical tome, a dramatic epic and a melancholic paean on the conflicting unity of (human) nature and politics within Buddhist cosmology. This is the point of anime’s thematic focus on fatalism. As a tragic story about the past, a historicist part of history, every moment of The Tale of the Heike is colored by prescient knowledge. Like the storyteller, the audience watches the story unfold from a position of estranged compulsion; from the beginning, everyone knows how it will end. For Biwa, for the cast, and for us, what has happened and what is to happen exist concurrently – accordingly, there is nothing for anyone to do but to play their parts in the unfolding of The Tale of the Heike.

Yet the irony of Biwa’s story is that it is not simply an image of her past, but also of our future. What awaits us all, the fate of mankind itself, is ultimately preordained: We are not oblivious to the coming oblivion. That is to say, what Biwa sees is nothing more or less than the transient nature of human life – the existential spectacle of which inevitably and invariably culminates in a vision of death, of disappearance, of non-being. This is the universal significance of Buddhist impermanence, that crucial insight which makes this ancient part of Japanese history resound as a timeless story for people throughout the world. But just as we all know that life is colored by death, pain, and regret, so we are aware that there is joy, peace, and hope to be had in the course of one’s life. Living one’s life knowing that it is finite, and profoundly imperfect, is essential to what it means to be human. For now, at least, the world continues to have meaning. Like a flower, it is precious, beautiful, and wonderful precisely because it does not last.

Of course, it is this exact contradiction which demonstrates the enduring significance of history. If there is wisdom to be had in life, others deserve to share in it. That is why Biwa’s storytelling is a performative form of “prayer”. By definition, a prayer is a species of communication which depends on loving communion. It is an unconditional offering – a blind vision. We do not see the recipients of Biwa’s story for the simple reason that we are those recipients, and our presence is by no means guaranteed. From this perspective, every manner of storytelling is inherently a form of “prayer” – the invocation of that power beyond the present, the audience. In the end, even the greatest storytellers must rely on those others who would respond to and take up for themselves the task of creating history.

Unified Perspective

It is in its historicist aspect, a combination of “mythopoetic” and “cryptographic” techniques, that Yamada’s Heike Monogatari can and must be seen as a show about the truth of animated cinema.

The director herself signals this through the way she frames the story in the opening and ending sequences. Indeed, the lingering title card not only plays on the cinematic concept of a “time image” – the discerning viewer will have noticed how an accent on the title itself oscillates between cyan and orange, taking on the hues of Biwa’s eyes. By writing this metatextual framing device directly into the text, the show foregrounds how the blind seer-storyteller’s eyes serve as a metaphor for the cinematic window-screen through which the tale is transformed and rendered visible as a living image of history.

At the other extreme, the ending sequence marks the rupture of this very image. Then, at last, the spatiotemporal unity of the cinematic sound-image is disrupted, spliced, inverted and reversed. There, like nowhere else, the anime forces us to face the self-evident artifice of filmic storytelling. Not coincidentally, it is via this negation of the present, in the liminal context of a bifurcated frame and a time out of tune, that the central idea of Heike Monogatari’s view on history is literally spelled out – the need for a cinematographically “unified perspective”. (3)

This idea, the notion of a perspective capable of unifying the past and the future with the promised delivery of history – is it even possible? The ending sequence suggests that it is not. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the story of Heike Monogatari culminates in a sublime moment where the cast – metaphorically represented in the sound-image unity of (the) Biwa’s intertwined strings – speak in parallel with the voice(s) of history. Of course, for Biwa herself, this “unified perspective” takes the form of presentist blindness – the embodiment of a purpose fulfilled. This metaphorical closure marks the end of her life’s story, just as it marks the end of the anime. And yet, finite as it is, no matter how imperfect or how overlooked it may be, the work Biwa and Yamada left us is still there. By offering us nothing less than an enduring vision of universal history, a daring attempt at unifying the past and the future mediated by the cinematic unity of sound and image, this humble anime makes an argument that transcends its own limits – offering a prayer for a memorial ethics and a politics of responsibility concerning the true (ir)reality of material and spiritual history. (4)


(1) For an illuminating account of this filmographic problem – going over both the meaning of reality in animation and the material reality of animated film – see Matteo’s previous essays on the concept of “animated realism”, as well as the complementary article on Liz.

(2) In Liz, with its focus on synaesthetic musicality – i.e. the image-sound entwining of painterly fantasy and clinical reality *and* tonal harmony and silent rhythm – this theme found perfect expression in the bluebird decalcomania taking flight as a materially trans-formative and artistically autonomous self-signifier of abstract (or absolute) animation.

(3)  It must be noted that this exact concept has, in fact, already been explored in animation by Theodore Ushev. Ushev’s short film, Blind Vaysha, is a murky philosophical rumination on the diachronic temporality of historical consciousness vis-á-vis the presentism of everyday perception. Ultimately, acknowledging the filmic nature of her story, the storyteller tells her audience that it falls to us, as viewers, to provide a “unified perspective” on the world, knowing that retentive memory and protentive clairvoyance remain the only faculties capable of safekeeping a sense of history in the living present. Given this direct parallelism, it is beyond reasonable doubt that the creative team behind Heike Monogatari were unaware of Ushev’s work (unless, of course, there is some common historical source of which I am unaware). In any case, if we are to be responsible historiographers, we would do well to keep this debt in mind.

(4) I will not go into detail about the philosophical underpinnings of my interpretative framework – notably including Derridea’s hauntology, Benjamin’s dialectical image of history, and postmodern media theory in general; nor will I account for the work of other directors of animated film that follow similar paths, from Isao Takahata and Sunao Katabuchi’s materialist-imaginary representations of history, to Tomm Moore’s mythopoetic re-animation of the spirits of the dead through songs and stories – but I stress that it is neither theoretically unfounded or “neutral”. At the very least, I claim, historicist critics must be honest about their sources.

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