Another Tale of the Heike


A review of Another Tale of the Heike: An Examination of the Engyōbon Heike monogatari, by Amy Christine Franks.

Amy Franks’s meticulously researched and persuasively written dissertation is a study of the Engyōbon, a lesser-known but extremely important variant of the Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike, 13th century). Copied from a manuscript dated 1309 (the second year of the Engyō era), the Engyōbon Heike monogatari is widely regarded as the oldest existing Heike text. The manuscript was produced at Negoroji, a complex of Buddhist temples on Mt. Kōya, headquarters of the Shingon school, and was most likely used as an aid in Buddhist preaching (p. 4).

Franks’s dissertation fills a lacuna in providing the first English-language study of the Engyōbon text, examining its characteristics, the strategies it employs, and how it compares to the shorter, better-known Kakuichi variant, the version of Heike monogatari dictated in 1371 that in modern times has come to be referred to as a sort of canonic text. Franks also examines several Engyōbon sections, providing both an English translation of each section and the original Japanese text corresponding to key passages. In this way, she opens a window onto the very core of the Engyōbon. The reader has a chance to appreciate its amazing richness, while enjoying Franks’s to-the-point observations and clever insights.

Chapter 1 introduces the Engyōbon Heike monogatari and provides a review of existing work on this important text. Of particular interest is Franks’s discussion of the dichotomy between “oral” and “read” variants, a distinction that in the case of The Tale of the Heike should by no means be considered clear-cut. The Engyōbon, a text that was most likely read, is a great example of the overlapping of the two traditions, as it exhibits some of the features of oral formulaic poetry that we associate with oral variants such as Kakuichibon.

Unlike the polished, smooth-running, streamlined Kakuichibon, the Engyōbon is characterized by its rich, expansive nature and tendency to incorporate documents, tangential stories, local legends, poetry, and so forth. The lack of narrative unity resulting from the constant accumulation of these heterogeneous materials can be a challenge for the modern reader, and partly explains the lesser popularity of the Engyōbon. However, Franks argues that accumulation and digression should not be seen as “intellectual lassitude or carelessness” (p. 10), but as an efficient way to store and preserve knowledge in ways that made complete sense to medieval narrators and audiences. Drawing on French philologist Bernard Cerquiglini’s work on variance, Franks emphasizes that the Engyōbon should be seen as a veritable medieval literary work, best understood as the product of variable, continual rewriting, rather than the work of an individual author.

Having established the nature of the Engyōbon variant and elucidated its main characteristics, Franks proceeds to explore sections of this long literary work. The second chapter focuses on war narratives related to the battle at Uji Bridge and the battle of Ichinotani, both of which took place in 1184. Through careful analysis of the selected texts, Franks shows, among other things, that instances of idealization of warriors are relatively few in the Engyōbon, especially as compared to the Kakuichibon variant. Discrepancies among texts should remind us that, although based on a historical event (the Genpei War), the Heike monogatari, regardless of variant, inevitably belongs to the world of fiction. Franks writes: “The intricacy of its details, the psychological examinations of its characters; the descriptions of their thoughts, motives, and emotions—these features all signal that it is a work we would consider as primarily literary and fictional” (p. 40). For this reason, Franks argues, the stories narrated in Heike monogatari should not be taken at face value or used as “proof texts” of warrior behavior and samurai ethics. The war narratives examined in this chapter display another of the Engyōbon’s striking characteristics: a tendency to explain the cause-and-effect nature of reality, and to attach a Buddhist moral to most of the stories.

The third chapter examines the famous narrative recounting the events that led to the priest Mongaku’s decision to take Buddhist vows. The story, derived from a Chinese tale (also included in the Engyōbon), is an excellent example of how the Engyōbon transforms historical figures into literary characters by making use of previously existing legends from various traditions. The story of Moritō (Mongaku’s name as a layman) and the woman known in other sources as Kesa gozen, who sacrifices her life to save that of her husband, shows how the Engyōbon is capable of a higher level of psychological nuance. If in Genpei jōsuiki and the Nagatobon (the narrative does not exist in the Kakuichibon) Moritō is just a hostage taker, extortionist, and rapist, in the Engyōbon he is closer to a Greek tragic hero, a tormented soul who waits for three years before letting his passions overtake him.

The fourth chapter addresses one of the most important narratives of Heike monogatari, that of Kenreimon’in, mother of the child emperor Antoku and last Taira survivor, the woman who is left to make sense of the dramatic events of the Genpei War and pass them on to future generations. Similarly to the battle narratives and Mongaku’s story examined in previous chapters, Kenreimon’in’s section is longer and more detailed than the corresponding one in the Kakuichibon. This is particularly true for the talk of the Six Paths, in which the woman frames her experience of the war as a journey through the rokudō, the six states of Buddhist existence. Kenreimon’in’s story is also more heavily Buddhist, and makes reference to an enormous number of works, both religious and secular (an abbreviated list of these is given on p. 262).

Noticing the contrasting treatment of facts in different variants, Franks returns to the subject of fiction and history. She points out how the Engyōbon authors are not interested in presenting a single, authorized history of the Genpei conflict. In a medieval context, Franks argues, a

“variant’s legitimacy, or value, cannot come from any claims to historical and objective truth. Its authority lies elsewhere, in its comprehensiveness, its inclusiveness, its stockpiling of information and associations. In this way, the Engyōbon…acknowledges and values the multiple voices and views of history and the past, it acknowledges the debt that narratives owe to other narratives, and it eschews the idea of singular and unique experience” (p. 231).

Examining the far-from-idealized image of Kenreimon’in presented by the Engyōbon, Franks challenges the widespread assumption that her story (and Heike monogatari in general) must have necessarily served the purpose of pacifying the spirits of the dead. It is quite possible that the Kakuichibon had that placatory goal, but we should by no means attribute the same function to all variants, and certainly not to the Engyōbon Heike monogatari.

With its rigorous, in-depth analysis of the text, savvy use of Japanese secondary literature, and insightful observations, Amy Franks’s dissertation accurately portrays the amazing qualities of the Engyōbon Heike monogatari and lays a solid foundation for future scholarship on this variant.

Roberta Strippoli
Assistant Professor
Department of Asian and Asian American Studies
Binghamton University, SUNY

Primary Sources

Engyōbon Heike monogatari
Kakuichibon Heike monogatari
Genpei jōsuiki
Nagatobon Heike monogatari

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2009. 315 pp. Primary Advisor: Edward Kamens.

Image: Poster from the 1953 film Jigokumon (“Gate of Hell” or “La puerta del infierno”).

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