“The sound of… bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the… flowers reveal the truth that the prosperous must decline. 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.”
That is the famous opening passage of The Tale of the Heike, a mammoth, epic work that tells the story of the 12th century Genpei War. This tale of civil-war has become a center-piece of Japanese literature for centuries. I can’t even begin to summarize this story of cultural clashes, political intrigue and war. The level of detail, place and character puts the works of Tolkien and Wagner to shame. The Tale of the Heike is like a giant oratorio, with a thousand characters. It’s separated into 12 chapters containing 182 cantatas, each 30-to-40 minutes long. In other words, it is a story so big it takes a lifetime to tell and master.
This epic work cannot be assigned to a single author. It is the result of an oral tradition that grew over centuries, from one generation to the next, by Japanese medieval, lute-playing bards called the biwa hoshi. However, the most widely read version of the Heike was compiled by a 14th century blind monk named Akashi no Kakuichi.
Kakuichi was an adult, a Buddahist monk, when he was struck blind; we don’t know how or why. He was fortunate though to have the means to support himself. The monastery was the center of secular and sacred music and according to many accounts, Kakuichi was one of the most talented and sought after performers in Kyoto. Translator Helen McCullough states that Kakuichi’s interpretation of the Heike, “Seems to have been more complex, colorful and melodic than anything previously attempted.” Akashi no Kakuichi became so popular that he began to acquire students and disciples. He established a school of performance and a guild of blind singers that served Japan well into the 19th century.
How does an epic as long as The Tale of the Heike hold together; through the use and re-use of specific melodies and musical ideas. There were as many as 33 sung melodies for performing the Heike, each meant for a unique mood. One was used for passages about beauty, one for moments of tragedy, another for fighting and valor, you get the idea. The instrument, usually the lute, would play between the passages of the narrative, setting the mood and holding the story together.
This Buddhist tale of impermanence and this unique form of storytelling has influenced Japanese art and culture for centuries. In ballad drama, kabuki dance, puppet plays, novels, film, television, manga, and anime you can see the fingerprint of the Heike in so many aspects of Japanese media. As McCullough wrote, “We can probably say that no single Japanese literary work has influenced so many writers in so many genres for so long a time as the Heike.”
Learn more about Akashi no Kakuichi in Lewis Holmes’ book The Mystery of Music .
Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.