Unsung Heroes: The women of The Heike Story

By: Claire March 18, 20220 Comments
A child in historical Japanese garb, covering one eye and running through murky light

Spoilers for The Heike Story

From its opening shot, The Heike Story is a study in contrasts: life and death, legacy and impermanence, beauty and brutality. But the most profound contrast weaving through this series, and particularly its characters, is that between stasis and change, between characters whose fate is sealed from the outset and those who undergo transformation, discovering their own agency along the way. And these fortunate few? These ones blessed with character development? They are all women. In this tale of war, conflict, and the political intrigues of patriarchal elites, the men languish in a kind of suspended animation while the women undergo the type of character arc that marks out a protagonist. In other words, the women of The Heike Story are the heroes.

Gio, Biwa, and Tokuko sitting together

The series is an adaptation of the Heike monogatari, a classic work of Japanese literature that follows the rise and fall of the Heike clan and its tyrannical leader, Taira no Kiyomori, in the 12th century. This historic epic consists of twelve books of vignettes from which anime director Yamada Naoko and writer Yoshida Reiko selected a handful to weave into a singular, cohesive tale.

To do this, they created an original protagonist, the traveling minstrel child Biwa, who serves as witness to the Heike and composes the songs that tell of their fate. Her character is an homage to the blind male biwa players who were so pivotal in composing, popularizing, and preserving the actual Heike monogatari. But Yamada and Yoshida, the female dream team behind A Silent Voice, Liz and the Blue Bird, and K-On, go a step further beyond tribute with the character of Biwa: by presenting her as the epic’s original author-performer, the anime adaptation places the theme of female agency front and center in what is otherwise a male-centric work. 

A bald, regal man sitting against an ornate backdrop, looking dull and annoyed. Subtitle text reads: You really are a bore, you know.
Kiyomori berating his son, Shigemori, for being protagonist material.

The Heike Story’s reorientation of the classic tale toward its women is subtle, at least for the first half of the series. The cast remains predominantly male, despite the addition of Biwa. But as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that these men are failing to develop. Some, like the ambitious Kiyomori and flippant Emperor Go-Shirakawa, are unwilling to grow, and drive the plot forward through their mutual stubbornness.

Others, like Kiyomori’s grandsons, are unable to, and choose instead to drown themselves in the face of their inadequacies as warriors. The most poignant example is that of Shigemori, the clan leader’s eldest son and adoptive father figure to Biwa. He possesses both the will and capacity to temper his father’s belligerence and save the Heike from themselves. Yet, halfway through the series, he succumbs to a mysterious illness and dies. Neither Shigemori nor any of the men of the Heike are able to affect their own fate, let alone that of their clan.

A pink-haired woman in the traditional garb of the shirabyoshi, looking ahead

Instead, it is the women who manage to grow and change, reshaping their own life stories and the world around them. The first of these is the seemingly minor, yet pivotal character Gio, a shirabyoshi dancer whose story plays out in episode two. Having served Kiyomori for several years, she has been thrown aside for a younger woman, Hotoke. Kiyomori now continues to humiliate Gio by requiring her to perform for Hotoke and keep her company. Torn between jealousy and resentment on the one hand, and persistent affection for Kiyomori and Hotoke on the other, Gio chooses the Buddhist path of inaction.

That is to say, she decides not to participate in the destructive chain of action that anger or simple resignation would perpetuate, and instead withdraws from court life with her sister and mother to begin anew as a nun. In a final twist, Hotoke seeks Gio out to beg her forgiveness and join her in a life of prayer.

A group of Buddhist nuns gathered in prayer in a dark, cool bamboo room
The song of Gio’s future (Hotoke, left; Gio, Hotoke, & Gio’s mother & sister, right)

Gio’s decision may sound passive to Western ears, and certainly seems to be the opposite of the “overcoming of obstacles” and “persevering through crises” that typically define character development. Yet, it is this decision to remove herself as a pawn of the Heike leader, and forgive those who used and usurped her, that ultimately fuels Gio’s personal transformation and that of Hotoke as well. When the song of Gio’s future is sung at the end of the episode, it is the one occasion in the series that there is no death or suffering, only joy in the new life and renewed relationships that lie on the path ahead.

These same themes are explored to a greater extent through Tokuko, Shigemori’s younger sister and a close friend to Biwa. Like Gio, Tokuko recognizes herself to be a pawn of her father as he maneuvers her into a political marriage. She is expected to produce an heir who will take the throne and enable his grandfather, Kiyomori, to at last dominate the court of the Emperor.

A young woman in historical Japanese dress, reclined across a mat looking pensive. Subtitle text reads: Father thinks of us only as his pawns.

Initially, Tokuko is resigned to her fate, which is understandable given that she has been raised for this purpose and is still only sixteen. But as she matures—bearing a son, suffering mistreatment, and witnessing the human cost of the political scheming of her father and father-in-law, Emperor Go-Shirakawa—Tokuko’s resignation melts away and is replaced with something more decisive. She comes to reject the dominant culture of violence and one-upmanship perpetuated by the Heike, and instead chooses to forgive. “That may sound presumptuous,” she confides to Biwa, “but someone has to forgive, or there will be only hatred and conflict.”

Composite screenshot of a battlefield littered with armor and flowers blooming

Tokuko is pursuing a new vision of the world, one that contradicts what she’s been raised to believe. And to do so, she must take radical action: she makes the decision to “forgive, and forgive, and forgive.”*As she later explains to Go-Shirakawa, Tokuko wishes to become “the flower that blooms even in mud,” modeling the beauty of life amid the ugliness of death and destruction, even though it leaves her vulnerable in the miry battlefield between the Heike and the Imperial house. 

But this isn’t the end of Tokuko’s story. In owning her decision to withdraw from the cycle of violence, Tokuko discovers the determination to defy her father and stand up for her convictions, refusing to be used as a political bargaining chip again after she is widowed. When faced with his daughter’s opposition, Kiyomori’s shock is palpable. He is disarmed by her firm confidence and Tokuko, still a young woman, is able to remain the head of her own household, living out her days in independence. By the end of the series, she has become a source of wisdom and inspiration even for her former oppressor, Go-Shirakawa.

Two women sitting silhouetted against the sunlight in a doorway to a bright, Japanese garden

Tokuko also influences Biwa’s story and character development, as her determination to pursue a different way of being shakes the girl from her complacency. Biwa has the ability to see the future, but she believes herself unable to intervene in the horrifying visions she glimpses, to the point where she does not fully engage with the present. Biwa’s arrested inner state is expressed physically, as she defies the signs of the passage of time: she does not age, even as her playmates grow up around her.

Adding to this liminality, Biwa dresses and at one point identifies as a boy, yet does not correct Tokuko when the young woman recognizes her as a girl. Biwa’s ambiguous gender identity mirrors her journey as a character: initially defined as static, like the male leads, she ultimately undergoes the same pattern of character development as the female leads. Biwa bridges the worlds and dichotomies at the heart of The Heike Story.

Biwa farewelling her mother, against a dark wood backdrop. Subtitle text reads: I've found something I can do.

When Tokuko tells Biwa of her decision to forgive, it sparks the recognition in Biwa that she too must pursue this path. It leads her in search of her mother, a former shirabyoshi dancer who abandoned Biwa before she could walk. When Biwa at last finds her, their reunion is difficult. But at the critical moment, her mother asks for her daughter’s forgiveness, and gives Biwa the opportunity to choose the path that Gio and Tokuko had both modeled. Biwa follows in their footsteps, and in doing so, regains a vital relationship and rediscovers a sense of purpose in her life in witnessing the fate of the Heike.

But it doesn’t stop there. Something more has changed in Biwa. In the series finale, her most feared vision of the future begins to play out: the vision where Tokuko is drowning. In despair over the death of her son during the Heike’s final naval battle, Tokuko flings herself overboard, enacting the harrowing scene foreshadowed by Biwa’s special sight. Images of this moment—of Tokuko succumbing to an angry whirlpool—serve as a motif in the series, reinforcing Biwa’s sense of powerlessness and her resignation to losing those she cares about. But in searching out her mother and reconciliation, Biwa has discovered her agency, embracing a new way of seeing the world.

A hazy, blue shot of a woman's head poking out of the water, gasping for air
Biwa’s haunting vision…

And so this time, when she sees Tokuko drowning in reality, everything looks different: “Your story isn’t over,” she cries out, “Tokuko, it is not your time!” 

Biwa’s understanding of her premonition is redefined and instead of the finality of a watery grave, Biwa sees Tokuko’s escape from death: “Your future continues,” she exclaims, “This eye sees the future! You continue to live for everyone’s sake.” Biwa isn’t lying; she has simply reinterpreted what she had seen all this time through the new lens that Tokuko and her journey have given her. Until this moment, Biwa had taken the images of Tokuko’s struggle in the water as her friend’s demise, because death and loss are what Biwa’s own past of abandonment and orphanhood had taught her to expect.

She was used to the mud. But as she chooses to look for the blooming flower, to become that flower herself, Biwa begins to see instead the defiant triumph of life. Her perspective on the world and her own place in it transforms, and in the process, she discovers her own agency and uses it to breathe hope for the future into what otherwise would be the tragic climax of a war story.

A hand pulling a woman out of a shimmering, purple sea. Subtitle text reads: You continue to live for everyone's sake.
…now seen with fresh eyes. The helping hand that closed on thin air in the vision is now able to offer rescue, and so Biwa saves her friend.

This is what makes Biwa the true hero of The Heike Story, one whose character development does not follow a straightforward arc. It’s more of a spiral, a double-helix intertwining with Tokuko’s story, just as those of Gio and Hotoke also intertwine. Biwa and Tokuko, each in turn, motivate the rise in each other’s arcs. When Biwa is at her most static, it is Tokuko who inspires her to begin to break into action; when Tokuko wants to end her story prematurely, Biwa intervenes to assert a future for her that is full of life. 

Fittingly, the closing scene of the series shows Tokuko many years later, twisting together four of the five colored strings of the goshiki no ito—perhaps one for each of the women—twining them into a strong chord that, according to 12th-century tradition, would lead one directly to Paradise if held tightly at the end of life. The four strings of a biwa then replace the colored threads as Biwa sings her song of the Heike.

A white-haired girl playing the biwa against a stark, black backdrop. Superimposed in front of her are four intertwining threads in various colors

It is a melody at once compelling and alien, much like the unusual depiction of female agency and heroism in this adaptation. For although the plot may be driven by the conflict and political machinations of male elites, in the end, it is the women of the story who, by pursuing “inaction” and choosing to abandon the cycle of violence, are able to shape both their own destinies and the legacy of the Heike. In the end, it is their words, their view of the world, and the chords of their lives that resonate through the song of The Heike Story. 

* The Japanese verb yurusu, translated in the subtitles as “forgive”, is closer to “permit” or acceptance, in the Buddhist sense of withdrawing from a negative cycle of action. My thanks to Crowboy for this insight!

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