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The death of Taira no Atsumori (warning, literary history ahead)

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: books, japan
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