‘The Taiheiki’, translated by Helen Craig McCullough (Review)

After a leisurely extended stay in the Heian Era, it’s time to move forward a few hundred years on our next #JanuaryInJapan journey, as we head towards the fourteenth century.  We still have an Emperor, and a court, but these are different times, and the country is now ruled (in fact, if not in theory) by warriors.  However, not everyone is happy with this state of affairs, and heads are about to roll (literally in many cases)…

…I suspect we’ve picked a bad time to pop in unannounced 😦

The Taiheiki: A Chronicle of Medieval Japan (translated by Helen Craig McCullough) is a swashbuckling gunki monogatari, or war tale, very much in the vein of the better known The Tale of the Heike.  Where that story told of the epic battles that ended the Heian Era, with the Minamotos overthrowing the ruling Taira clan, here we’re taken a century and a half onwards to see what eventuated after the victory of the Genji.

What we’re shown at the start of The Taiheiki is a country ruled over by yet another clan, the Hōjō, who have held court as shōguns in Kamakura for nine generations while the royal family is kept weak in a puppet court in Kyoto, with emperors of different lines alternating on the thrown.  The current regent Takatoki rules over a country becoming tired of the overbearing Hōjō, and the Emperor Go-Daigo, a man of more backbone than many of his ancestors, decides it’s time for power to return to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Initial intrigues prove to be unsuccessful, with the Shōgun getting wind of various plots and chasing down Go-Daigo and his son, the warrior monk Prince Morinaga.  However, now that the country knows the Emperor’s wishes, it’s just a matter of time before men of conviction rally to his cause.  From all corners of the country, even within the Kamakura ranks, enemies of the Shōgunate emerge, and as they start to gather their own armies, the scene is set for a number of epic, and bloody, showdowns.

To be clear about what you’re getting here, I’ll allow the translator to take the floor:

In short, the gunki monogatari are not great literature.
p.xvi (Tuttle Publishing, 1956)

That doesn’t sound too good…  Luckily, that’s not the end of the comment:

But the best of them are worth reading, not only for what they have to tell about a society of great interest, but also because they are lively tales such as have found audiences everywhere in every age – first-rate entertainment of their kind.

That’s better – I was getting rather worried for a minute there…

McCullough’s opinion is one I’d share, and The Taiheiki is far from perfect.  The story is slow to start, and overcrowded with names, making it hard to keep track of who wants to slaughter whom.  There are also some extremely tangential anecdotes drawing on Chinese history, sucking the life out of the reader (on one notable occasion, the story runs to seventeen whole pages).  The book also ends in a rather unusual place, dribbling to an end rather than roaring to a triumphant climax (in fact, this translation of The Taiheiki only has twelve chapters of the original forty, with the full Japanese version continuing decades past the events covered here).

Yet when The Taiheiki gets into its stride, it’s all glorious fun.  I’ve heard rumours of a large Japanese influence on the Star Wars universe, and reading this you can see why.  We have the brutal Shōgunate forces hunting down a royal in need of desperate help, and warrior monks and heroes emerging from the backwaters of the universe country.  Sadly, there are no spaceships here, but I suppose you can’t have everything.

What we’re all here for, though, are the battles, and there are conflicts aplenty.  Once we get past the initial foiled plots and skirmishes, the action ramps up, and the Shōgun isn’t messing around, sending an incredible number of armed men up to the capital to quash the rebellion:

When the armies from Akasaka and Yoshino had galloped to join themselves to the eight hundred thousand attackers of Chihaya castle, then like a show place or wrestling ring the castle was encompassed about by a million riders, who filled every foot and inch of ground for two or three leagues on all sides. (p.181)

One suspects that the anonymous writer(s) of the tale is being slightly liberal with the truth here, and this is far from the only example of exaggerations of troop figures.  If the actions of the book truly reflect the number of people who perished in the conflict, it’s a wonder there was anyone left alive to clean up the mess afterwards.

These battle scenes are great fun, both for the action and the strategising that precedes it (the eastern warriors are largely written as blustering buffoons, easily outwitted by the loyalist leaders).  Then there are the individual battle scenes, where proud warriors introduce themselves and their lineage, calling out the enemy and daring them to face them down one on one (more than a hint of Braveheart here).  All this leads to heroic deaths, bloody battlefields and plenty of heads and limbs hacked off, meaning it’s not a book for the faint of heart.

Of course, these were different times, and might alone was not enough to win the day.  The Taiheiki is full of prayer and superstition, and the martial monks featured turn out to be good for spiritual as well as military support.  The writers often resort to dreams, as both omens and inspiration:

Tired by his nightlong worship, the prince bent his knees to make a pillow.  As he slept, a boy with hair bound up in rolls came to him in a dream, saying:
“At the three shrines of Kumano, men’s hearts are still out of harmony, so that it will be difficult for righteousness to prevail.  Go from hence towards Totsugawa to await the coming of an auspicious time.  I am sent by the gods as a guide to show the way.”
The prince awakened out of his sleep when he had dreamt this dream, thinking hopefully, “It is a revelation from the gods.” (p.138)

With the help of force ghosts the gods, the royal rebels must surely be able to bring down the evil Empire Shōgunate.

Another interesting aspect of The Taiheiki and the conflict it describes is how the lack of advanced communication affects the outcome.  Plenty of people are ready to rise up with Go-Daigo, but most are hesitant to do so before anyone else.  It’s only when a few brave men, such as the legendary Kusunoki Masashige, pluck up the courage to fight, and hold off the enemy long enough for word to spread, that the uprising truly gets underway.  Kamakura is slow to react to the first setbacks because of the distance from the capital, and when the fighting does begin, so do the rumours.  Whenever the balance tips slightly in the battles, a few despairing words can be enough to make a larger force turn on its heel and flee in turmoil.

If I’m being honest, The Taiheiki can be dull at times, so it’s not a book for the casual reader.  However, even if it’s not really up there with The Tale of the Heike, it’s still a must-read for those with an interest in pre-modern Japanese history.  Also, as you may have suspected (and as historians will already know), this was far from the end of the story.  Already, in the moment of victory, the seeds of defeat are being sown, in the form of the treacherous Takauji Ashikaga, another fairly major figure in Japanese history.  Yes, the Empire Shōgunate will strike back, but that’s a story for a sequel – or the rest of The Taiheiki

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