The reception of the Heike Monogatari as performed narrative: the atsumori episode in heikyoku, zato ¥ biwa and satsuma biwa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


The Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike) is a formative legend in Japanese history, which as a literary classic has had an enormous impact in Japanese cultural history. With multiple extant texts, reception studies of the Heike are complex. Furthermore, the Heike is also a performance art, a musical narrative generally called heikyoku. Because of the power and importance of the story, the key episodes of the Tale crossed over into other performance genres such as the no ¥, bunraku and kabuki theatres from medieval to contemporary times. This paper looks at reception of the Heike in the sense of its re-creation in different performance contexts, and examines one of the most frequently received of the episodes, the Atsumori episode, in three genres accompanied by the biwa. It concludes that oral narrative, while relying on verbal and musical formulae, has the maximum flexibility through the direct input of the performer in shaping the narrative in the performance situation. In the genres where the text is fixed, musical flexibility may remain because of limited musical notation. Where the musical realization of the narrative performance becomes fixed and permanently notated, the performer has no more than interpretive possibilities. The implication for reception theory is that a powerful epic cycle such as the Heike with its multiplicity of contexts and realizations, both textual and performance, calls for a new kind of approach, as the concept of the 'work' is so fluid.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)59-85
Number of pages27
JournalJapanese Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2003

Cite this