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Unformatted text preview: f the chief sources of information about the rise and fall of the
Ise Taira is a work entitled The Tale of the Heike (another name for the
Taira), the finest of a genre of writing known as war tales. The war tales,
all of which were anonymously written or compiled, are accounts of
warriors and their battles based on actual events that have been embellished, and hence are partly history and partly fiction. The first of the
tales was composed sometime in the late tenth century and deals with
the rebellion of one Taira no Masakado (d. 940) in the Kantò during
939–40.5 Tales continued to be produced up to the seventeenth century,
but the period of their greatest flourishing was the early medieval age,
the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Some of the war tales were composed shortly after the events they describe, while others were put into writing on the basis of an earlier oral
tradition. The Tale of the Heike, which recounts the rise of the Ise Taira
and their eventual fall and annihilation in the Minamoto-Taira war of
1180–85, was probably first compiled as a book in the early thirteenth
century. But subsequently the Heike was greatly elaborated and expanded
by guilds of blind Buddhist monks who, chanting the tale’s episodes to
the accompaniment of a kind of lute known as the biwa, entertained
audiences everywhere as they journeyed around the country. From the
body of war tales that spans the medieval centuries, those—such as the
Heike—that deal with the twelfth-century clashes between Taira and
Minamoto have remained especially popular among the Japanese through
the ages and have been the stuff from which countless plays, dramatic
dances, movies, and the like have been fashioned. Perhaps the best proof
of the ongoing popularity of the Heike in particular lies in the fact that,
as we will see in the next chapter, virtually all the warrior plays of the nò
theatre (an artistic creation of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries)
are based on characters and stories from it.
The later war tales degenerated into mere recitations of the interminable battles of the middle ages, one often indistinguishable from another. But in the Heike and a few others we have a priceless repository of
the ethos of the medie...
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- Spring '13