Y’know what one of my favorite topics in school was? History. In fact, while I’ve likely mentioned I am a college graduate with a Bachelor’s in English, my minor was in History. There’s a lot to learn from studying the events of the past and how they’ve shaped the present, and it’s something that’s always fascinated the observer in me. This interest often makes its way into the media I consume, as well—such is how I came to discover and take a keen interest in Heike Monogatari.
With a combination of a distinct art style and the promise of some (moderately) realistic depiction of olden-days Japan, it was something I was able to consume fairly easily, despite the eleven-episode runtime. Pus, it had “Monogatari” in its name. If Katanagatari and Bakemonogatari are any indication, anime with that titling tend to just be good by default. It’s a sign.
“A young orphan named Biwa is taken in by the powerful Taira Clan—also known as the Heike—after their leader witnesses her extraordinary psychic abilities. Unfortunately, what she predicts is a future of bloodshed, violence, and civil war. Inspired by the 12th-century epic tale Heike Monogatari.“
All right, so I called the art style “distinct,” but it’s probably just “distinct” in the sense that it doesn’t look like modern anime. This is likely the sort of look the industry went with in, say, the ’70s. I have no concrete evidence of that timeframe—it just sounds right. Regardless, there is a particular “vintage” appeal to it. Still moderately caricaturist, though the cast look more distinctly Japanese.
It helped tremendously. I do quite like the way this series is animated—very fluid when it needs to be and generally more lifelike in everyday situations. There was a scene in the second or third episode where I remarked how naturally the characters moved when engaged in simple conversation. Though not consistent, characters won’t generally sit in place and have their lips flap up and down. They’ll turn their heads, shift their viewpoint, move their bodies, etc. An extra step in animated immersion that I appreciated.
During scenes of turmoil and supernatural phenomena (of which there is some present), the vivacity of imagery, both fantastical and grounded, takes precedence. The original “Heike Monogatari” was passed down through oral tradition, as was more prevalent back in those days, and the series accentuates that moral sublimity. An earnest presentation of finality and tragedy the likes one rarely sees in mainstream stories these days. Beauty through pain, if you’re into that. (I am.)
As for the story itself… from what I’ve come to research after viewing the series, there is a substantial amount of detail to the story of the Heike. Heike Monogatari, the anime, is comprised of only eleven episodes, shorter than the usual twelve to thirteen episodes in a standard anime cour. Due to this, the pacing can be rather erratic, particularly in the beginning as the major names are introduced. Various events and people, with vital importance to the thread of relations, seem skimmed over at times.
To admit something very stupid, I did not initially know that this series was supposed to be told over the course of five years. If you didn’t know that, there you go. So when I was three episodes in and characters somehow looked older than before, my initial thought was that they were completely different characters. No, they’re just older. And given the relatively girthy size of the character cast in general, it was easy to get lost in it all.
For example, while I do praise the distinctiveness of the art style, there were a couple points where I saw a bald old man and thought, “Okay, this is bald old man character,” only to have another bald old man character enter the fray and confuse my brain as to who is whom. A similar situation occurred when some notable female characters became integral to the plot of an earlier episode. Not often do I suggest making a mental note of paying close attention to bodily features to distinguish characters, but it might be useful here.
To veer back into the content pushed into a short runtime, I believe it suffered more in the beginning than the end. Trying to introduce multiple characters, their impact on the plot and our “main” character, Biwa (she doesn’t always feel “main”), and the fates that would befall them tend to come and go in a flash. It lessens the impact of some clearly traumatic circumstances that likely could’ve benefitted from one or two more episodes of build-up.
The latter half, however, is quite good. All that the series had been building from the very beginning, now given ample time to examine itself, comes to fruition wonderfully. All that should have been damning before now is tenfold. Stakes become more personal as the characters understand the gravity of their reality. Individual characters get (a varying amount of) time to supply their own perspective as the end nears. Oh, and how the end hits.
Even if the story is more concerned with unraveling the end of an era of dominance, none of that would matter if the viewer cared not for those who bear the “Heike” name. For the most part, characters are rounded enough to carry the interest… again, more prominently near the end.
Biwa is an interesting “Link” character, where most of her role is to have the viewer see and learn vicariously through her. She has her own gruffness that provides a spark of intrigue, only it tends to sputter out as the plot begins to force her out. Not much is really utilized with her “powers” either: being able to see the future. Seems more like a grim reminder of what’s to come than anything to her as an individual. All in service to the foreboding nature of the story.
Most other characters match that “interesting” description. Enough is emphasized through their (occasionally one-note) personalities to give them distinction, though they also sort of just linger within a stuffiness of royal etiquette that can create a dull atmosphere. Interesting, though, to see how these characters change as the years go by. One character I was initially not fond of was among my favorites by the end. Sometimes it’s worth it to wait and see.
Try as it might to recreate a storied epic, it falls short in some facets. The beginning episodes fly by too quickly to leave much of an impact and characters end up not being as strong as they could be. Yet the ending half, where the story begins to constrict the characters with excess cruelty, is among the more engrossing content I’ve seen from this medium. With great animation and style to boot, it’s definitely among the upper echelon of content produced in the last ten years or so. Well worth a watch for how short it is, too.
The rating for this title and all others can be found on MyAnimeList.
For more anime reviews, check out the associated archive.
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