The Heike Monogatari begins, like many of the great epics, en medias re (in the middle of things) with the understanding that the reader (or listener) is already well-acquainted with the background of the story. Its opening lines states the epic’s main theme, that all things must pass, and even the mighty, no matter how talented, eventually fall. Of the many examples in history, the narrator tells us, the story of Kiyomori is the most shocking.
The poem then traces Kiyomori’s ancestry back several generations. This is similar in some ways to the ‘begats’ of the bible, or the opening sections of another great epic, the Aeneid, which gives legitimacy to Rome by tracing the ancestry of its founder. The opening of the Heike Monogatari, by listing the ancestors of Kiyomori, makes clear two things: that Kiyomori can legitimately claim as part of his ancestry Takamochi, the first to take the name of Taira (Heike), as well as an emperor, Emperor Kanmu, who reigned from 781 to 806 A.C.E. Also, however, after many generations as privy gentlemen, the Heike began a slow slide from grace. For many generations they served as provincial governors, but were no more than local squires in Ise province, far from the city; in short, country bumpkins.
The following section of the HM focuses, by way of contrast, not on Kiyomori, but on his father, Tadamori. Though dismissed by many as a bumpkin, Tadamori manages to win over retired Emperor Toba. When Toba vows to build a temple, Tokyoju-in (dedicated in 1131), Tadamori, then governor of Bizen, makes a very large donation, helping fund a remarkably large temple that enshrines 1,001 buddhas. Tadamori, in one fell swoop, distinguishes himself as being both pious and rich.
We are immediately plunged into a court filled with suspicion, intrigue and conspiracy. Tadamori is granted admission to the palace to attend a banquet, an annual event, Toyo no Akari. The courtiers, jealous of the 36-year-old upstart, plan to have him killed, but news of the assassination reaches Tadamori. During the banquet he steps off into the shadows, then holds up a large dagger, letting it gleam as a warning to any and all who wish him harm.
In another part of the palace there is a suspicious man wearing an unmarked hunting cloak over armor and wearing a sword. The man has entered the palace without authorization, but when asked to leave, he refuses. He has heard there may be an attempt on his master Tadamori’s life, he says, and so he will not go.
The courtiers amuse themselves by dancing and singing light, amusing songs, teasing each other through songs with double-meanings. They sing a particularly mean-spirited song about Tadamori, using word play to, among other things, compare him to a vinegar jar. Tadamori slips out, finds a lady palace official and passes to her his dagger.
The courtiers protest. Tadamori, without authorization, attended an imperial banquet with a dagger and an armed attendant. Such behavior, they say, is unheard of. He should, therefore, be dismissed from his duties.
Tadamori is called in by the retired emperor, but claims ignorance. He didn’t know, he says, that the old retainer was there, but after all the man was only doing his job. As for the dagger, it was merely wood wrapped with silver foil. It served to intimidate those who would do him harm, but was absolutely no danger to anyone in the palace. The retired emperor was impressed by Tadamori’s cunning, so no punishment was forthcoming. Tadamori, in fact, was praised for his genius, his man for his loyalty and devotion.
Later, when the Retired Emperor asks Tadamori about the weather at the Akashi Coast, he responds with a poem.
“Along the coast of Akashi,
The dawn moon shines;
Sea winds dash waves, still dark with night,
Upon the brightening shore”
The spontaneous composition of poetry was a highly valued art at the Heian court, and the retired emperor was delighted with the poem, which was later included in the imperially commissioned anthology of waka poetry, Kin’yoshu, of 1127.
Later still, Tadamori visited a beloved gentlewoman at his patron’s palace, but upon leaving forgot his fan. Others in the palace, noticing the painted moon on the edge of the fan, teased her. “Where is this moon from?” they asked.
“From (the palace) above the clouds this moon stole in to me; my lips are sealed.”
Tadamori died in 1153 at the age of 58. Pious and well to do, he was also a sly strategist, a talented poet and lover. This, however, was in sharp contrast to his first-born son, Kiyomori.
Next: The Hogen Incident and the Rise of Kiyomori