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Reviewed by:
  • Lovable Losers: The Heike in Action and Memory eds. by Mikael S. Adolphson and Anne Commons
  • Robert Borgen
Lovable Losers: The Heike in Action and Memory. Edited by Mikael S. Adolphson and Anne Commons. University of Hawai'i Press, 2015. 302 pages. Hardcover $55.00.

I have long been a Heike fan, or, more precisely, a Heike fan, since it is more the tale, Heike monogatari, than the historical personages themselves, that interests me. The story, moreover, is one that continues to resonate in modern Japan, as illustrated by the following anecdote: On visits to Japan after I had reviewed Helen McCullough's 1988 translation of the tale, I began to explore places where the action occurred—a rewarding experience that I highly recommend.1 Dan no ura, site of the final battle, was particularly memorable. There I found a small harbor lined with a cluster of houses, fishing boats moored behind them. A shrine to Ebisu, the patron deity of fishermen, marked the bridge leading to the harbor's breakwater, and at the far end of the breakwater were two men fishing. I walked out, and we struck up a conversation. They explained that descendants of the Heike lived in the houses and retained hereditary fishing rights. Others were forbidden to fish there because the heavy shipping traffic and irregular strong currents made it too dangerous for small boats manned by crews unfamiliar with the local waters. Unfamiliarity with the currents, they explained, was one reason for the defeat of the Heike, who were in their own boats and did not know local conditions. In contrast, the Genji, whose fighters were land based, relied on local boatmen who knew the waters. In the nearby hills, they added, were small, crudely carved stones, said to mark the graves of fallen, anonymous Heike warriors, where one might see flowers left by equally anonymous venerators. Were it a noh play, the fishermen would have mysteriously exited and then reappeared for a second act as ghosts of the warriors to perform a dance.

In my review of the translation, I noted that, whereas Genji might be the favorite monogatari among literary scholars, Heike—or at least the stories it told—was likely preferred by ordinary Japanese, the stories recounted by fishermen at Dan no ura hinting at the latter's popularity. Heike, I suggested, deserved better treatment than it had received in the Anglophone world, and I welcomed the new translation. Since then, two additional translations into English have appeared, one complete (by Royall Tyler), the other abbreviated (by Burton Watson). Studies by literary scholars, most conspicuously David Bialock, have also contributed to our understanding of the text. Still, Heike lags behind Genji both in the number of English versions available and more importantly in the amount of scholarly attention it receives. Lovable Losers: The Heike in Action and Memory, edited by Mikael S. Adolphson and Anne Commons, helps fill this gap in scholarly research directed toward Heike. Although most of the chapters in this collection focus on either the Heike themselves or alternative retellings of their story rather than the tale itself, since that tale might be classified as a literary account of historical events, how and why its authors improved [End Page 270] upon mere facts is an interesting problem that cannot be solved without attention to the history upon which it is based. The alternative versions, some of them little known, are also themselves fascinating.

Following the editors' thoughtful introductory chapter, "Blurring the Lines: Repositioning the Heike," the book's main section is divided into two parts, "The Heike in Action" and "The Heike in Memory." As these names suggest, the first section consists of studies focused on what the Heike actually did during the brief period when they dominated the court, and the second features essays on how the Heike were memorialized. The volume's essays, all of high caliber, together shed light on many topics, starting with the historical background of the tale and, after many interesting stops along the way, concluding with how events were reimagined by literary and cinematic artists in the twentieth century.

The first three chapters of part 1 all involve Fukuhara...


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