Content Warning: Violence against adults (restrained in its depiction) and children (not shown); depictions of sexism and gender essentialism.
What’s it about? Set at the cusp of the Genpei War (late 1100s), this historical fantasy follows a young biwa player simply called “Biwa” who can see snippets of the future. After her father is killed by supporters of the Taira clan, she sees a vision of the clan’s downfall. But when she shares this prophecy with Shigemori, the eldest son of the Taira clan who has a strange power of his own, instead of killing her, he takes her into his home and looks after her as one of his own, hoping she’ll use her power to help his clan avoid their fate.
Editor’s Note: After discussing the episode with some of our trans staffers, we’ve opted to follow the English translation’s lead and use “she/her” pronouns for the protagonist Biwa without referring to her as a “female” or “male” character specifically. We’ll talk about this premiere’s handling of gender in the review in more detail, but we wanted to establish that from the start.
Seems like every time I crash through the AniFem doors hollering about a premiere, the series later implodes on me. So let’s avoid that curse today by simply saying that The Heike Story is about what you’d expect from a collaboration between studio Science Saru (Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken, Devilman Crybaby) and director Yamada Naoko (A Silent Voice, Liz and the Blue Bird): gorgeously animated and impressively storyboarded, with a dual focus on natural imagery and detailed body language that grants the premiere a scope both epic and intimate, imbuing each of its many characters and scenes with immediate personality and pathos.
Surely a measured statement like that doesn’t count as “hollering,” right?
The Heike Story is an adaptation of the classic Japanese historical epic Heike Monogatari (usually translated as “Tale of the Heike”), which focuses on the Genpei War between the Taira (or Heike) and Minamoto (or Genji) clans, bouncing between key characters and episodes from the war. In broader terms, it’s a eulogy to the deceased that essentially tells the tale of Japan’s shift from the Heian to the Kamakura period in the 1100s, as the imperial family and aesthetic court culture declined and the warrior class rose to power.
My memories of Heike Monogatari are fuzzy (it’s been over a decade since I read it), so unfortunately I can’t provide a detailed run-down of what this adaptation is doing differently. I can tell you that its central ideas are right at home in the Heian period: themes of impermanence and karmic retribution run through this premiere (common threads in Buddhist-inspired premodern literature), as well as a strong through-line about class and gender oppression (which were more common in folklore and female court literature, respectively).
While Heike Story is definitely drawing from historical literature both in its narrative and themes, this also feels like a distinctly modern adaptation, particularly with the addition of the more fantastical elements and the commoner protagonist, Biwa. Fellow staffer Chiaki had some thoughtful things to say about the anime’s decision to add Biwa to the tale in our group chat, so I’ll yield the floor to her for this part:
I think there’s a measure of irony and beauty here, because I think the series is hinting at Biwa being the “author” of the Tale of Heike, which has no official author, but is largely regarded as a work passed down by blind lute poets, also known as Biwa Houshi, as Biwa’s father was. Most of them, I believe, were male. I think it’s a clever nod that Biwa telling The Tale of Heike to the Heike, and I’m curious to see if the prophecies start to wear on her and this epic she will be reciting will become more and more a eulogy as it was originally intended.
I might also note that women during this time were particularly stronger in the arts. History often focused on men and political power revolved around them, but women (not having much political power) instead dominated the arts, so Biwa becoming the storyteller might also be nod to the court ladies who compiled and recited literature during medieval Japan.
As Chiaki hints at in her comments, other than the gorgeous art and detail-oriented character animation, what makes this premiere stand out as a unique Heike adaptation is its apparent interest in discussing gender roles and identities in the Heian era. Whether intentional or no, there’s an immediate blurring of gender lines with the protagonist Biwa, which leads to a subtle running question of what in fact defines one as a “boy” or a “girl.”
The adults see Biwa as a girl because of her body, but the young Biwa sees gender as presentation-based (“Pa always made me dress like a boy, so I am a boy”). Neither quite fits our modern understanding of gender, but both hearken to various understandings of it throughout history. Biwa’s father dressed her as a boy to keep her safe while traveling and she insists on wearing masculine clothing even after Shigemori takes her in, but it’s unclear if that’s because she genuinely identifies as a boy or has no strong sense of gender and is just most comfortable in these clothes.
While I certainly won’t deny anyone a trans reading of Biwa, I don’t personally see the story going that route at this point, at least not explicitly. I suspect it’s interested less in gender identity and more in gender roles: how women wielded power and navigated the spaces available to them in the late Heian era, especially in a war epic that’s usually seen as a masculine story primarily about male characters and spheres (whether that be the court, the battlefield, or the monastery).
This premiere seems interested in exploring the limitations placed on women (or at least AFABs), as Shigemori’s sister Tokuko remarks that presenting as male is probably “better” for Biwa and is visibly troubled at the thought of “living as a woman” in this world. Even if Biwa ultimately ends up switching to feminine clothes (as the flash-forwards of her singing the Heike epic imply), a conversation about gender norms and expectations is still a valuable one to have, as well as a refreshing way to retell a centuries-old tale.
It’s also worth noting that Heike Story is one of those rare anime unicorns, both directed and written by women. That doesn’t 100% guarantee it will nail its depictions of female characters and gender roles, of course, but it certainly gives it a leg up in terms of its creators being able to draw from lived experience.
The Heike Story takes place in an oppressive realm of rigid divisions, rules, and roles along class, family, and gender lines. Criticize the ruling class and you’re arrested or killed; fail to follow proper etiquette and you’re brutally beaten; dare to present as a woman and you’re sequestered behind walls and blinds or threatened with an even greater risk of violence than others.
In a world with such rigid divisions, Biwa exists somewhat miraculously in the in-between spaces—between commoner and aristocrat, boy and girl, present and future, visible and invisible, Taira and anti-Taira—which gives her a measure of freedom as well as a broader view of the world. It positions her as the ideal observer and recorder for the impending war, the narrator who will pass the Heike’s tale down in history.
While I’m of course interested in how Heike Story handles its themes about gender, class, and oppression, I suspect what will make or break this adaptation is how well it integrates Biwa into the lives of the Taira clan and builds emotional bonds between characters. Weaving the many threads of Heike Monogatari into a compelling, cohesive adaptation will be a challenging task, but this premiere is off to an impressive start.