The Heike Monogatari, or Tale of the Heike, is a legendary prose narrative that depicts the epic battle between the Taira, or Heike, and the Minamoto, or Genji, clans. During what is known as The Genpei War, the two groups were battling for control of Japan in the late 12th century. In the great climactic naval battle at Dan-no-ura, the Taira are defeated, which leads to the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate, and nearly 700 years of shogun rule. As the end draws near for the heroes of the Taira, most famously Taira no Tomomori, they weigh themselves down with armor and even anchors and leap together into the sea. The legend has been retold and portrayed many times in literature, art, theater, and film. Below are some of Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s famous Ukiyo-e woodblock prints on the subject, along with an excerpt from the original English translation by A. L. Sadler (1918–1921).
Then Shin-Chunagon Tomomori-no-Kyo, who had been watching how the day was going, at length saw that nothing remained but to put an end to his life, and calling his foster-brother Iga-no-Heinaisaemon Ienaga, he said: ” Is it not time to fulfil the promise we made? ” ” Certainly; ” replied Ienaga. And he assisted Tomomori to don two suits of armour, afterwards doing the same himself, and the two leaped into the sea clasped in each other’s arms. Some twenty samurai who were with them at once followed them into the waves; but Etchu-no-Jirohyoye Moritsugu, Kazusa-no-Gorohyoe, Akushichi-byoye Kagekiyo and Hida-no-Jirohyoye managed to elude the enemy somehow and escape. And now the whole sea was red with the banners and insignia that they tore off and cut away, so that it looked like the waters of the Tatsuta-gawa when it is flecked with the maple leaves that the wind brings down in autumn, while the white breakers that rolled up on the beach were dyed a scarlet colour. The deserted empty ships rocked mournfully on the waves, driven aimlessly hither and Hither by the wind and tide.
Ten Foot Square Hut & Tales of the Heike
Ukiyo-E Master #01: Samurai Ghost and Monster Wars: Supernatural Art by Kuniyoshi
Drawings by Utagawa Kuniyoshi from the Collection of the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden