Top positive review
Great translation of a venerable classic
on August 17, 2001
Translations of Japanese and Chinese classics are often hampered by the archaic language used in the originals. This was not the case here and the translator has achieved a balanced fusion of great story-telling and accurate presentation of the text. This is no small achievement since the Heike tale is populated by many diverse characters some of whom are only mentioned once whereas others have great influence on the plot despite their brief appearances.
I have found that the best way to read the book is to treat oneself to the episodic nature of the chapters. This reflects the original format of the story; that it was expressed in minstrel style story-telling by the "biwa-hoshi" in nightly recitals. As such each segment of the story can be treated like individual pearls in a string, each complete and entertaining by its own merit but strung together to form the whole epic saga of the Heike. Attempts to read the book in the style of a conventional Western novel with its continuous narrative will result in frustration since the story seem to take many didactic excursions and side plots. This may also have been the rootcause to the earlier frustration of another reviewer who encountered too many characters to comprehend at one single reading. A similar experience can be found if a first time reader tries to read the Bible continuously from Genesis to Revelation.
The other great challenge in this translation is in its reference to the characters of the story. The long titles accorded to each individual felt cumbersome and unnecessary at first but as I continued reading I began to appreciate that the original narrators of the tale were relating to the traditional Japanese audience, not the modern reader. As such the titles and honorifics were not only essential but required for reasons of protocol. Many listeners in feudal Japan were related or held similar positions to those described in the story. This realization helps the reader to savour the vintage of this work.
The book also helps to lift a veil over 12th Century interaction between Japan and China. The narrators often recited characters from ancient China as part of the shared heritage of Japanese perceptions of honor and duty. The exchange of ideas and cultural practices between the two empires comes across as very vital and alive at that period as expressed by the presence of a Chinese physician during Taira no Shigemori's death. My initial fascination about the extermination of the Taira (from reading the story of Earless Hoichi from Kwaidan by L. Hearns) have been greatly enriched by the full account of the Gempei Wars found here in the Tale of the Heike. The sense of karmic justice where the terrible fate that befell the Taira clan was a direct result of the evil deeds of Kiyomori was all but pervasive in this book. Great reading!