Did everyone notice the female warrior with the Genji troops during the Battle of Kurihara? That’s Tomoe Gozen, a legendary onna-musha, whose authenticity no one can quite prove. She’s just a drop in the bucket of this episode’s action, but her inclusion is still important to both the historical fidelity of The Heike Story and Biwa’s presence as a character who may or may not have existed in history. Tomoe is part of the buried history of warrior women largely assumed to be mythology by historians (John Man’s Searching for the Amazons is a good overview of the subject) while Biwa is the anonymous storyteller, a role that was often unacknowledged in the days before written records were the popular norm. When we see older Biwa’s flowing white hair turn into the white banner of the Genji flying in the breeze, we’re reminded that, like the Tomoe Gozens of the world, the voice of the storyteller is often only an echo today.
That image, and again the brief appearances of Tomoe, speak highly of how The Heike Story is unfurling its tale. We may not be getting a complete adaptation in the strictest sense, but a lot of the important details are still present in the art of the show, filling in blanks if we know to look for them. Some of them are more obvious than others – Sukemori’s unfortunate little mustache shows his aging more clearly than any height or weight change while reminding us of Biwa’s unchanging physical self (which I’m now theorizing is symbolic of Story, where the details, like her eyes, can change but the body of the work is eternal) or the fact that Antoku is now talking in adorably formal language. But then we have the hair-to-banner transitions, the fact that anytime something falls, death is not far behind, and the exquisite colors of the scene of Fukuhara burning, which mimic the golds of early picture scrolls of the tale. It’s a beautiful mingling of the symbolic and the mundane, because children do drop balls and leaves do fall, but both of those images can also foretell the falling of a warrior or a house. It’s all in how you look at them and how much you want to see.
Willful blindness seems to be part of what’s happening to Shigemori’s eldest son, Koremori, who has become an unwilling warrior. His brothers remark this week that he’s changed, but the veracity of that statement is up for interpretation. As the comment is made, we see him painting his face for battle, a phrase that will take on metaphoric connotations a thousand years later (give or take a hundred) as being about a woman putting on makeup as armor against the world. Koremori’s use of face paint is doing essentially the same thing: it’s letting him put on a disguise, turning him into someone who is fine with going into battle and killing others – or worse, having his own soldiers’ deaths on his conscience. This is revealed as the scant protection it is when the Genji’s tactics drive 70,000 Heike warriors to their deaths in a gorge, running the makeup right off of Koremori’s face with sweat and tears. A mask can only do so much, but Koremori’s determination to keep wearing his seems likely to bring about his downfall. But maybe at this point, as we saw with his father before him, death wouldn’t be so unwelcome, as it would at least free him from the obligations he’s told he has.
The world is burning down around the Heike’s ears. That they’re the ones who set it on fire – both literally and metaphorically – doesn’t make it any better as they set sail for a distant province with the toddler emperor. We all remember what Biwa saw in Tokuko and Antoku’s futures, so that they’re currently on a ship isn’t a healthy sign for them. But throughout this show, we’ve seen not only endless reminders of the ephemerality of life and joy, but also that the women are better able to handle those vagaries. Biwa continues her search for her mother against the odds, the former shirabiyoshi got to live life on their own terms, and not even the Genji can drive the women out of the capital. Maybe Tokuko won’t be so easily drowned by mere water.
The Heike Story is currently streaming on