Rating: 4.5 (of 5)
The Tale of the Heiki is a 12-chapter epic assembled no later than the early 14th century from a collection of oral traditions. It chronicles the rise and fall of the Taira (aka Heiki) warrior clan in 12th century Japan, events which brought the Heian Period to an end and directly contributed to the foundation of Japan’s first shogunate. It has been published in several forms over the years, including a 2016 novelization called The Heiki Story. This 11-episode ONA series is directly adapted from that novel.
Though some elements in the story are no doubt dramatized, this is a hard-history story with only a bare thread of supernatural elements woven within and underneath it. Those elements mostly show up in the form of Biwa, a heterochromatic girl who can initially see the future (and later also inherits the ability to see the dead) but is consistently unable to do anything about it. She also, oddly, does not age at all, despite a story which covers roughly 20 years. Exactly what’s going on with that is never explained, but ultimately that is not an important detail; with one exception, she is not an actor in the story but rather an observer, occasionally even an innocent confidant who allows characters to sound out their innermost concerns. In fact, she may well be the embodiment of the story itself, as an alternate version of her is shown strumming the biwa while reciting poetic lines (presumably the original lines of the story) as major events happen, and later in the story she finds her purpose in resolving to recount what she has witnessed of the Heiki clan. While an interesting approach, the downside to this gimmickry is that her thinly-used side story about trying to find her long-absent mother ultimately has little impact when it does finally resolve.
The story told here is a messy one, filled with multi-angled power struggles and the way people can get chewed up and spit out by the relentless ebb and flow of events. Good-hearted souls inevitably get overwhelmed by the deeds they must do in furthering their clan’s cause, the weak get ignored if they’re lucky, and any who even slightly defy the powers that be do not live long enough to brag about it. While the story shows that those who get ahead are the most cold-hearted, practical, and cynical souls, the underlying them of the story is actually the impermanence of power and how even the mighty can fall low. To call this a morality play would be a stretch, however. This is a story designed to inform, and the only judgment cast is the suggestion that Kiyomori, the leader of the Heike clan and one of the two key power brokers in the story, may have been divinely punished for his actions.
That being said, the story does have at least some human element to it, which can be found in a few key characters. Shigemori, Kiyomori’s eldest son and most honest and trusted adviser, is the focus of this early on. He is the one who takes Biwa in when she is about to be killed by Heike underlings, and is the first shown to struggle with the amorality of what his clan is doing. Watching him try to do his duty while also trying to keep his uncle from doing anything too extreme can be compelling, and that role falls to one of his sons after he passes on. That role also falls to Tokuko, Kiyomori’s daughter, who befriends Biwa and is the one to most use her as a confidant as she gets married to the son of the current emperor and gives birth to a son who will, for a time while and infant, technically be the emperor. She is arguably the most durable and adaptable of all the major characters, as she finds ways to adjust to her circumstances in each stage of the story and maintain her loyalties even when others are not loyal to her. Watching how other characters get destroyed by being forced into roles that they are ill-suited for can also be morbidly fascinating.
Because the story focuses only on major events, the writing can feel choppy at times, with major events often being glossed over. However, doing so prevents the story from ever getting bogged down. It also allows more breathing room for characters to develop and show how they come to the decisions about their fates that they ultimately make. Doing the story this way also occasionally results in some goofy behavior; curiously, Minamoto no Yoritomo, who would later become the first Shogun, gets the most consistent treatment in this respect, coming off as a caricature of a man who barely seems to understand what’s going on around him rather than a shrewd man able to position himself to effectively rule Japan. Have to wonder if someone didn’t have an agenda there.
The animation production by studio Science SARU takes a stylized approach seen in many other works that they have animated (Devilman Crybaby, Night is Short, Walk on Girl, Keep Your Hands off Eizouken!), in this case favoring designs more in line with classical period drawings. It offers some excellent and likely well-researched renditions of locations, boats, and especially modes of dress, and on the rare times it shows action scenes the animation holds up well. Some of the strongest visuals involves the alternate forms of Biwa playing the biwa for key events. Overall, the look is definitely not a traditional one for anime, but it has its own appeal. A musical score regularly punctuated by biwa music quite effectively supports the story, lending a suitably dramatic feel to the biggest events and providing a quality opening song. The one exception is closer “unified perspective,” a weird mix of rap and electronica that never set right with me.
The Heike Story is, on the whole, a strong production which lies off the normal beaten anime path but is sure to appeal to history buffs. I can easily see it making both Best of Season and Best of Year lists and will be considering it for the latter myself.