EPS Review #11 - Children of Hachiman

By Lynn Guest.

This is a historical novel about the 12th century fight between the Minamoto (Genji) and Taira (Heike) clans, also known as the wars of the Gempei, or the Heike monogatari. The Minamoto won, and started the Kamakura shogunate. The nominal emperor Go-Shirakawa schemed throughout, and the Fujiwara clan held the North for a while.

More importantly, this is probably the most romantic historical drama of Japan, and the two most romantic figures are Yoshitsune, younger brother of the Minamoto chief Yoritomo, and Yoshitsune's warrior monk companion, Benkei.

You can't miss bits of this story if you visit Japan. This last April, my family and Laurie K stayed at the (very expensive!) Benkei ryokan in Arashiyama, Kyoto, at peak cherry-blossom season. And, of course, P and I, on our first trip together (1985 I think), spent the night in a futon window display at Hiraizumi, the Northern town where the story ended. As in any really great romance, of course, the good guys end up dead.

In the course of reading this book, I wondered where I first learned the story. Dredging my memory, I realised it was through a couple of pulp romances lent by a friend. I think they were called Tomoe Gozen and Naginata.

Looking back on these books, I think they were really very good, although I'm sure they subvert the actual history pretty thoroughly. For example, there was a very strong female lead (this Tomoe Gozen), who hardly figures at all in the book by Guest. But if you like fantasy/romance. you'll probably like the Salmonson books. I remember the death scene even now.

Anyway, Shakespeare would have loved the plot. The Taira have control of the country, but a few sons of the Minamoto opposition survive. Yoshitsune becomes a master swordsman, as well as a bit of an aesthete. The older Yoritomo trusts nobody, and is simply interested in crushing all opposition. Another brother, Noriyori, makes a bid to rule, but is cut down. Yoshitsune wins some dramatic battles (well-enough written by Guest), and crushes the whole Heike clan, but never wins his brother's trust. It does not help that Yoshitsune hangs out in Kyoto, where the emperor is. When the war is over, Yoshitsune's days are numbered. There are several love interests for Yoshitsune: Shizuka, a court dancer, and Taira Tamako, his second wife. As I say, none of it ends happily: if you want all the details, read the book!

Guest's book won the 1980 Historical Novel Prize in memory of Georgette Heyer, not that I had ever heard of this prize before. It is mostly well-written, though the end gets a bit on the depressing rather than the poignant side, probably because she errs on the side of authenticity. I found the book when I was browsing a web page on historical dramas.

I suppose the famous Tale of Genji is somehow related to this, but I have to admit I have never made it through that tedious work, though I have tried.

I also have a 1910 copy of "Saito Musashi-Bo Benkei" by De Benneville (vol 2 only). It tells the same story in 500 pages, several plates and a map, but I have not done more than sample it. It's a bit verbose, and there are even more names to keep straight.

Here's a web page on the Tales of the Heike, by somebody who is pretty darn interested. It would be interesting to get the Fujitsu CD-ROM.

Laurie wrote: This sounds like my sort of book! BUT I am sad to know in advance they all end up dead.... at least I can (un-proudly) claim to have read Georgette Heyer....

(Georgette Heyer is the most famous, almost originating author of "Regency romances" chaste little period romances set late 18C.)

Mitchell wrote: For the record I'm the "friend" [ who recommended Tomoe Gozen ]!