Our revels, as Shakespeare once wrote, now are ended. This is the final episode of The Heike Story, and it brings us both to the finale of the story and back around again to the beginning of it. With the last sea battle between the Heike and the Genji, the war for the throne, at least this portion of it, has come to its conclusion, and what a terrible one it is. Even the Genji and cloistered emperor Go-Shirakawa recognize that this is not how they anticipated things going – with the mass suicide of the Heike clan as they realize that their cause is all but lost. Did it have to end this way?
That’s the question Go-Shirakawa seems to be asking himself when he visits Tokuko, the best-known survivor of the sea battle at the end. In a faltering voice, he tells her that all he wanted was the Sacred Treasures returned, implying that he never sought the destruction of the Heike as a whole. But is that really fair for him to say? Was he truly so naïve as to believe that all of his actions wouldn’t result in the deaths of thousands, that his hands, the ones pulling the strings, would be bloodless? Kiyomori, for all of his faults, at least always acknowledged that what he was waging was nothing less than war. In the twilight of the story, Go-Shirakawa is trying to rewrite it so that he’s not responsible for the drowning of a child. But this, too, is part of the problem; when he asks Tokuko how she has found peace after everything that has happened to her, her answer is one that he, as someone who has taken religious vows, ought to already know: she tells him that she prays and that she’s thankful for all of the things she’s experienced in her life. Tokuko, in the end, is a woman who became a nun for the right reasons; Go-Shirakawa is revealed as a man who clearly didn’t understand or respect what he was dedicating his life to until just this final moment.
In some ways, that’s part of the message of this telling of the story. Go-Shirakawa, like Kiyomori, was meddling in things that he had no more say in, and in the cloistered emperor’s case, things he had ostensibly renounced. It was their hubris, their overweening need to control their descendants and the way of the world, that brought about the tragedies of Shigemori and his family. In their inability to age gracefully or peacefully, their selfish drive to maintain a power they no longer had any right to, they are responsible for everything that happened. Yes, other people followed their lead. But it was Go-Shirakawa and Kiyomori who put the pieces on the board and started the game, and by refusing to understand what it was they were doing – playing with the lives of their clans – they became the authors of their own demises, whether literal like Kiyomori’s or spiritual like Go-Shirakawa’s.
That makes it significant that the anime adaptation chooses to end with the section of the text called The Book of the Initiate. Although included in most versions of the text, it’s not thought to be original to the story, instead having been added in the thirteenth century by biwahoshi – traveling biwa players. We could make an educated guess that this is at least in part where the character of Biwa comes from, the potential that this final chapter of Heike Monogatari that tells us what happened to Tokuko after the war had ended and records her ascension to the Pure Land as she remembers the Heike and prays for them. It’s an epilogue, albeit one likely added after the fact, one that reminds us that there are better options than war and gives us a much more peaceful end for the one person who survived it all, even if she didn’t always want to. As she remembers her life with the cloistered emperor, she notes that she has lived many lives in one, an analogy for the cycles of death and rebirth, and having finished with that, she’s allowed to move on – a luxury that Go-Shirakawa is not yet permitted.
But this final episode also reminds us that what was once peoples’ lives is now a story. Stories, unless they are forgotten, live forever. That is what Biwa’s goal in accompanying the Heike to the end is – to keep Shigemori and his family alive. When her eyesight dwindles and fades away after the battle ends, this means that she has completed the first part of her task. This may also be why she finally seems to age to the old woman we see at various points throughout the show – her work complete, she is unstuck from time and allowed to move again; and if she only starts aging now, she will have a long life to pass on the tale of the Heike.
It is fitting that the final scenes show us how it all goes from life to tale. Threads come together, myths of an underwater palace become real, and we realize that not everyone’s stories are told when we see that Sukemori seems to have survived. Life makes a good story when we dress it up, and while lives may end, story lives on.
As bells toll every hour, each time we tell it, the tale begins anew.
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