Previous Entry Share Next Entry
The death of Taira no Atsumori (warning, literary history ahead)
Sasha Blaze
sedens
I found the passage I was looking for; it's from page 635 of Paul Varley's book Japanese Culture (4th edition, University of Hawaii Press, 1999), not from a direct translation of the Heike Monogatari. Varley warns sternly that the Heike suffers more in translation than any other of the Japanese classics, even Genji, and I'm willing to take his word for it. Here's his recap of the death of Atsumori, during the epic war between the Minamoto and Taira clans for control of what would become the nation of Japan:

The Minamoto warrior Kumagai Naozane sees a Taira horseman fleeing toward a ship in the offing and calls on him to turn around and fight. The Taira warrior responds, and in the ensuing combat Naozane knocks the other man off his horse. He lifts his sword, preparing to deal the final blow, when he notices, tearing off the helmet, that his enemy is a mere youth of sixteen, just about the same age as his own son. Remembering his own shock when he learned earlier that his son had been wounded, he can imagine how the parents of this youth would grieve to hear of his death. Naozane decides he will spare him. He addresses the youth politely, asking his name, only to receive the snarled reply, "Take my head and show it to somebody. They'll tell you who I am." At that moment other Minamoto horsemen appear and Naozane realizes that if he does not kill the young general, others will. He explains this, and promises to pray for the youth's salvation, but the latter expresses no gratitude, merely repeating, "Cut off my head!" Naozane steels himself to the act with the bitter reflection that it was only because he was born into a family of warriors that he must commit such cruel acts. When he strips the youth's armor he finds a flute, and he reflects how unlikely it was that anyone on the Minamoto side would have taken a flute to the battlefield.

Varley goes on to point out the contrasts in this scene: aging veteran against boy general; middle-rank provincial nobody against elegant, accomplished courtier; but also, surprisingly, Naozane's courtesy, generosity, and deference against Atsumori's harsh contempt. There's no villain in this scene--that's what makes it great, I think. Both Naozane and Atsumori are heroic, in their very different ways. Historically, Naozane is on the winning side: the Taira are doomed, just as Atsumori is. The Taira were once great warriors, but now they are the past, making its last stand against the oncoming Minamoto future.

In the Japanese tradition, the Heike holds a comparable place to . . . I guess I would say the Homeric epics in the Western tradition. It's from the oral tradition, meant to be sung rather than read; it is, as Varley says, "in the blood of the Japanese. No one has to explain even to the badly educated" who the main figures are, or gloss allusions to them in later works of literature and art.

But I like another comparison even better. I'm getting ready to teach the first half of the British literature survey (Anglo-Saxon to Enlightenment) this fall, and the prep work is sending me back to some of the early stuff that I don't usually work with. One of the great Anglo-Saxon texts is "The Battle of Maldon," which you should all find in translation and read if you haven't. Like "Maldon," the Heike is an elegy for a crumbling kingdom--and in the case of Heian Japan, one that probably deserved to crumble, considering how attenuated and inbred and indifferent to the broader needs of the country the capital had become. But that's not a point of view available to those who are born into the old court and the old ways, or those who fight the last-ditch battles to try to preserve the only life they know.

Atsumori dies, and Naozane is transformed. The story goes that he became a Buddhist priest and traveled the length and breadth of Japan, praying for Atsumori's soul; this is the basis for one of the best-known Noh plays based on the Heike. Read it, too.
Tags: ,

  • 1
I love this sort of stuff. I used to research it a few years ago when I was writing research papers for the SCA. I think especially the Japanese have a real flair for socking it to you, or at least, hitting it really to home. Your example of th 16 year old and the older man, and the fight of not only classes, but of what is right... and then youhave duty and honor... it really is a multi-layered story that isn't cut and dry.

I'm all about the gray areas--and that's very much what Japanese literature specializes in.

The epilogue to Atsumori's death is wonderful: the other Minamoto guys ride up, hear from Naozane what happened, and stand around admiring Atsumori's corpse while wetting their sleeves with tears over the sad end of such a beautiful and elegant young nobleman. Not that they wouldn't have killed him themselves, of course; there's no question that Naozane did the only possible thing under the circumstances. But the three tough Minamoto soldiers still get this moment of aesthetic appreciation for the tragedy of it all.

What a gorgeous and evocative passage...so much...humanity...in so few words. Amazing, really.

(You could sign up for voice posts and sing this bit for all of us...)

Your passion for the Warrior has been such an inspiring thing for me to read about in your posts.

Me . . . singing . . . in my virtually nonexistent Japanese . . . through my nose to the accompaniment of a biwa . . .

Oh, dear. That's genuinely frightening. ;-)

It's funny; in daily life, I have very little patience with Warriors, or those who try to pose as Warriors. But give me a good tragical-heroical story about them, and I'm a puddle of sniffling goo. It's a good thing that consistency isn't required for admission to the human race, eh?

I remember studying that passage in my Traditional Japanese class. I wish I could remember the film that we watched that supplied Heike Monogatari. I guess I could shoot my former professor an email. ^^

As for Genji... BLARGH! It's unfair how I managed to get an A in that class despite not reading the book. :D (Oh man, I was such an awful student when it came to that book. @___@) There's a newer translation available... And it's all right, I guess. Never found myself fascinated by Genji or his antics. If anything at all, I always felt sympathetic towards Lady Murasaki.

One thing that I dislike so much about Heian Japan is how virtually no texts about those outside the aristocracy survive. Obviously, poor people were boring and not worthy of being written about (not to mention, the high illiteracy rates). At least with the the fall of the Taira, you basically have Kamakura looming around the corner, which is another favorite period. ^^ Though... Tokugawa gets my preferred vote.

Okay, I'm just rambling, so I'll shut up, Cynthia. xD

Thanks for posting this -- it was a great remembrance!

Tokugawa is absolutely my favorite period, too--I love the rise of popular writing, and seeing stories and poems start to reflect a broader slice of everyday life. (It really corresponds to what's going on in 18th- and 19th-century Britain, my main area.) Heian literature is SO insular and airless . . . but beautiful, too, like an insect in amber. (Ack, horrid cliche!)

And I am always a sucker (literarily speaking; I have no real-life leanings this way at all) for the doomed warrior and the forlorn hope, anyway. Sucker, sucker, sucker.

Thinking about movies--Kwaidan has that Battle of Dannoura episode, "Hoichi the Earless." I'm sure there are a ton of others, but right now that's the only one that comes to mind.

(Deleted comment)
I am heartbroken (HEARTBROKEN, I say) to discover that the latest edition of the anthology I'll be using for the Early British Lit. class has removed "Maldon" from its Old English section. Luckily, I am a resourceful and cunning person, and will assign it via handout . . . ;-)

"Maldon" tears me into small pieces and leaves them scattered on the floor. I will be very, very interested in hearing what you think when you read it!

(Deleted comment)
It's so satisfying to see the books pile up in multicolored heaps. (Expensive, but satisfying.) I'm trying to break myself of the habit of buying every book that I think I should read . . . but the local public library is awful, and the library on campus isn't much better. I miss being in graduate school, when I spent Saturdays making the rounds of the three large and two small used bookstores in town!

  • 1
?

Log in

No account? Create an account