One of this seasons most enthralling and under-appreciated anime is Heike Monogatari, or Heike Story, directed by the talented Naoko Yamada and created by the greats at Science Saru. There are many striking elements to this series— its animation is phenomenal, its characters lively and endearing, its music a wonderful mix of traditional and modern elements. It is the show I look forward to watching each week the most and is easily my anime of the season so far, but there are people who have complaints about it. Most the complaints have a similar trend.
They don’t know what’s going on.
The “story” of Heike Story itself is a well-known historical epic in Japanese history that almost all Japanese people are familiar with. It is like watching the story of Abraham Lincoln and knowing he gets shot at the end (spoiler?). That’s all I can say about the plot because, like most non-Japanese viewers, I am also unfamiliar with this time in Japanese history and do not know what's going on. To many people, this is a turn off. Heike leaves much unexplained as it weaves its beautiful and tragic story, relying on its viewers to be able to fill in the important and probably at times boring historical gaps. But Heike Story knows what it is. It understands that its core audience, Japanese people, knows the ins and outs of this era and is embracing that in order to relay its plot in an artistic and unique way.
Cue the rest of the world.
Non-Japanese people have no idea what’s going on in Heike Story. And that’s fair. I also am struggling to piece together the political and emotional motivations of everyone involved. And remember their names. And tell the characters apart in general because everyone dresses the same. But to me, this isn’t something to complain about. I know this story isn’t being told for me; I realize that and can put my contextual questions aside to still enjoy the show. Isn’t it special to be told a cultural story as if you are someone of that culture? This isn’t a history lesson or a biography. This is an art form retelling a historical story through a fictional lens and should be viewed as such.
And we have Biwa on our side. Beautiful, playful, moody Biwa and her eye to peek into the future. She evens the playing field, helping those who do not know important plotpoints see them before they happen, just like how the intended viewer already knows the same facts. Biwa is our gateway into the tale in every sense of the word and magnifies the brilliance of Heike's storytelling. The narrator sings, Biwa sees, and we watch a well-known tale of love and tragedy unfold. Maybe we are lucky that we don't have the historical context! We get to experience this series spoiler-free in such an aesthetically mesmerizing and impactful way. Maybe it's hitting us differently than those who learned of its origins in their elementary school history class. Either way, I love the thought of feeling like an insider— of Heike Story not sugar-coating anything and giving me the story it wants to tell in the way it wants to tell it with no regrets. I think that’s pretty cool.
Sometimes art isn’t specifically made for you, and that’s okay! Get a peek into a new way of thinking and enjoy the experience with open arms. Just because you don't follow every happening of the tale doesn't mean you can't enjoy it. Please give Heike Monogatari a try if you haven't watched it yet. It truly has been wonderful so far and I can't wait to see where it takes us, since, like most others, I don't know where its destination is.