Japanese Film Reviews #4: Mizoguchi Kenji’s SHIN HEIKE MONOGATARI

The fourth episode of my Japanese film series can be found on my YouTube channel. I have also included a critical review of the film.

Shin Heike Monogatari Review

The 1955 film Shin Heike Monogatari follows the Taira clan’s early rise to power. It focuses on the political elements of the consolation of power around the Taira clan as well as the personal relationships between the main characters. Like the original manuscript of the Heike monogatari, the film idealizes the virtues of the samurai and cannot be considered completely accurate. However, despite some romantization, the film ultimately presents a fair depiction of samurai during this period, particularly their comparatively low social standing and the absence of a fully developed sense of a collective group identity.

To begin, the title Shin Heike Monogatari is somewhat misleading. As described by Herbert S. Joseph in his article “The “Heike Monogatari:” Buddhist Ethics and the Code of the Samurai,” “The Heike Monogatari is the record of a series of actual battles which took place during the Middle Ages between two clans, the Taira (Heike) and the Minamoto (Genji), for supremacy in Japan. The prose epic itself covers only the few years between 1180 and 1185 marking the final phase of the struggle and the downfall of the Taira.” (Joseph, 96) The audience coming to see the film might expect it to include some of the more well-known passages of the original Heike monogatari; such as the conflict between the Taira and the Minamoto and the downfall of the Taira clan. Instead, the film covers the early years of the rise of Taira clan to power. It specifically focuses on the young Taira Kiyomori and the Heike’s conflict with Buddhist sects and court nobles.

The film also deviates from the original manuscripts of the Heike monogatari, which it was not based on. For example, Taira Kiyomori, in contrast to the original, is not depicted as an immoral villain whose behavior is “beyond the mind’s imagining and the power of words” (Varley, 88), but as the hero of the film. Shin Heike Monogatari is actually an adaptation of a novel with the same title by the author Yoshikawa Eiji. This author often embellishes the events by altering the personalities of characters, dramatizing their relationships, and sometime creating entirely new ones. Therefore, the film’s historical relevance is comparable to American films like Gone with the Wind. Even the original Heike monogatari’s accuracy is somewhat suspect. It was likely composed in the 1220s and appeared approximately 30 years after the final collapse of the Taira (Hasegawa, 68, 72). Given the fact that it was recited by biwa hōshi (traveling lute priests), the text was likely altered to enhance its effect as a piece of musical recitation and to sharpen the dramatic impact of the narrative (Hasegawa, 73). In later centuries, the Heike monogatari was used to represent and uphold ideal samurai virtues. Therefore, even the original Heike monogatari contains dramatic embellishments, similar to Homer’s Iliad, and cannot be considered a completely accurate depiction of real events.

In Shin Heike Monogatari, a distinct ‘samurai identity’ is established by juxtaposing the actions of the Taira clan with those of other social groups; specifically aristocrats, monks, and peasants. While during this period the samurai may have been in the process of constructing their own unique social identity, it is clear in the film that they do not belong any of the three social classes listed above. They occupy a place relatively higher than peasants, but relatively lower that Buddhist monks and court nobles. Shin Heike Monogatari does an excellent job at demonstrating the relatively low social position the samurai held. At this time the military strength of the samurai was used by the court to suppress uprising and enforce imperial rule. Cloistered emperor Go-Shirakawa calling on the Taira clan to suppress the rebellion of the monks of Mt. Hiei is a fine example of this. However, while the court depended on the strength of the samurai, they did not consider them equals. Samurai were rarely allowed near the emperor, as depicted in Shin Heike Monogatari, and their men “were made to stay far behind the imperial procession” (Sato, 109). Samurai were also subordinate to Buddhists. The opening scene of the film shows the exhausted members of the Taira clan returning from a successful military campaign. However, despite their success, they still must prostrate themselves on the roadside as the warrior monks of Mt. Hiei pass by. Furthermore, when Taira Tadamori is finally given a title by the emperor and granted admittance to the imperial court, the aristocracy not only tries to ostracize him but also plan an assassination attempt.

Some early elements of a samurai code can also be seen in Shin Heike Monogatari, such as the concepts of loyalty to one’s lord, wisdom, courage, benevolence, disdain of saving one’s life, and the maintenance of personal honor. Both Tadamori and Kiyomori are loyal to the imperial family, despite the financial hardship it places on the clan and the lack of recognition they receive for their service. However, it is important to keep in mind that “at the time, this code was in an early, informal and unwritten stage” (Joseph, 97). If anything, the film is too generous and romanticizes the main characters too much. As pointed out by Joseph, the individual Japanese warrior during the 12th century was often the opposite of the ideal. He was a “rather pragmatic fellow who greatly admired physical prowess and skill with weapons, one who was bent on saving face…he is characterized in general in this epic as a head hunter, a house burner and a true pagan warrior in every sense of the word” (Joseph, 97).

The Buddhist warriors of Mt. Hiei serve as a foil to the samurai of the Taira clan who, though still rough around the edges, seem positively saint-like when compared to these corrupt and self-serving monks. The depiction of the monks is probably one of the most accurate in the film. Corrupt Buddhist monks inhabit nearly every scene of the film; Kiyomori’s mother is shown sleeping with a fallen Buddhist monk and bands of warrior monks wander the streets of the capital causing fights and disturbing the peace. According to Hiroaki Sato in Legends of the Samurai; “The secularization – or degradation and corruption, if you will – of Buddhist monks began early in Japan. The direct cause is traced to relaxation of government rules on certification and ordination of monks in the ninth century…because a Buddhist monk was exempted from certain taxes and labor, everyone wanted to become one…as celibacy and the rule against eating sentient beings were violated, carrying weapons and fighting became prevalent among monks” (Sato, 108). The type of person who was likely to be a monk in the late 12th century is thus very different from our modern image of Buddhists.

The ability of film to correctly depict history is heavily contested. Even when the dates and events are known, it is very hard to completely grasp the personalities of the main actors and their relationships with one another through historical evidence and documentation alone. The farther back in the historical record events take place also make them exponentially harder to verify and it is often impossible to understand the whole ‘picture.’ In her discussion of history as depicted in film, Natalie Zemon Davis concludes that “We must respect the evidence, accepting it as a given, and let the imagination work from there. If, after such an effort, we still decide to depart from the evidence – say, in creating a composite character or changing a time frame – then it should be in the spirit of the evidence and plausible, not misleading” (Davis, 130). If the writer or director of a film chooses to use fictional events to fill in gaps in the historical record, and these fictional events conform to the general spirit of the time, then they can considered “approximate truths” and are not completely harmful to the historical narrative (Daivs, 126).

During the late 12th century, pragmatism seems to be the most common characteristic among samurai and Shin Heike Monogatari, for the most part, preserves this. Kiyomori is not so inflexible that he is cannot turn against established power structures. In fact, it is very clear in the film that in order to advance their position within the court, the Taira must be willing to sacrifice vested interests, including those of the central aristocracy and prominent religious institutions (Hasegawa, 66). The final scene of the film also preserves the central theme of mappō or ‘the end of the Buddhist law’ that characterizes the original Heike monogatari (Varley, 85) by implying the end of the era of elaborate court rule and that aristocrats would soon be displaced in favor of samurai military power. Therefore, despite some flaws, Shin Heike Monogatari is both a successful adaptation of the original work and contains a rather fair, if slightly idealized, image of samurai identity during the time.

Works Cited

Davis, Natalie Zemon, Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision. Cambridge;

Harvard University Press, 2000.

Hasegawa Tadashi, “The Early Stages of the Heike Monogatari.” Monumenta Nipponica,

vol. 22, no. 1/2 (1967), pp. 65-81.

Joseph, Herbert S., “The “Hekie Monogatari”: Buddhist Ethics and the Code of the

Samurai.” Folklore, vol. 87, no. 1 (1976), pp. 96-104.

Sato Hiroaki, Legends of the Samurai. Woodstock; The Overlook Press, 1995.

Shin Heike Monogatari. Dir. Mizoguchi Kenji. Daiei Studios, 1955.

Varley, Paul, Warriors of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

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