I've spent a lot of time with the Tale of the Heike in its various incarnations: McCullough, Tyler, Kakuichi-bon, Engyō-bon. That's probably why I kept translating "Miboshi" and "Kakizuki" to "Minamoto" and "Taira" in my mind, as reliably as my Nexus 5 keeps autocorrecting "people" to "purple." Lian Hearn's Tale of Shikanoko novels rely heavily on the Tale of the Heike and other accounts of the Genpei War for inspiration, with a twist: books 3 and 4 take the Nō-drama tradition of romanticizing the surviving members of the Taira clan several steps farther by restoring them to power.
As Electra Pritchett noted in her review of books 1 and 2, the Tale of the Heike and other martial epics aren't straight-up history. I personally describe them as a kind of historical fiction that plays fast and loose with its source material. The Tale of the Heike is not without magic—it reshapes and recontextualizes actual events by introducing elements of divine intervention, building a myth which ultimately justifies the fall of the Taira clan. I've always thought that historical fiction makes it apparent that what humans care about most is stories. In historical fiction we reach back to add foreshadowing, tie off loose ends, and invoke thematic resonance that wasn't apparent at the time. We remake history into a coherent narrative.
The Heike also serves a religious purpose: scholars such as David Bialock and Elizabeth Oyler have observed how parts of the Tale of the Heike were performed as placatory offerings to the restless spirits of the Taira warriors in order to prevent disasters such as the great earthquake of 1186 in the capital. (In the Heian and Kamakura periods, it was common to blame such calamities as fires, earthquakes, and plagues on the vengeful dead.) Although the Tale of Shikanoko theoretically stands apart from these agendas, it ties back to the Heike strongly enough that I couldn't stop comparing the two.
The dramatis personæ at the start of each book did little to help me (though the subheading for "Horses" made me smile). I found that the character voices frequently blended together, forcing me to flip back to the start of each chapter over and over to figure out whom I was following at any given moment. The story opens with Shikanoko and Akihime's baby Takemaru and Hina, the child previously rescued by Shikanoko, being pulled from the waters of Lake Kasumi by a troupe of itinerant entertainers—who unknowingly harbor the "rightful" emperor Yoshimori (still a child, training to be an acrobat) in their midst. Before Hina can decide what, if anything, to do or say regarding the emperor, she is packed away to a hidden women's nunnery … to prepare for life as an entertainer and prostitute.
"Okay," I said to myself. "It's a fantasy. Whatever. I'll roll with it."
And then Hina (now called Yayoi, the better to hide her from harm) visits the abbess, in whose quarters she sees a statue explicitly described as the "horse-headed Kannon."
It was at this point that my already shaky immersion collapsed. I'll swallow the magic lutes and enchanted books—after all, the divine mirror pulls a full Raiders of the Lost Ark during the climax of the Heike—but a Buddhist nunnery where girls train to be prostitutes? Early medieval Buddhism was not particularly known for being sex-positive. I found myself wondering why Hearn didn't bother to take the extra step of inventing a fantasy religion that would permit this sort of activity. While yūjo, asobi, and kugutsu (various forms of female sexual entertainers) did fulfill shamanic roles in Japanese indigenous religion, sexual acts (such as those implied at the end of the first chapter) were taboo on the grounds of Buddhist temples.
Speaking of religion, I was also intrigued and confused by the acrobats' secret cult. While the religious sect Yoshimori belongs to is never explicitly named, the remote hidden village and the few references to its beliefs bear a resemblance to Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christian) practices.
"Yayoi knew the open secret that the acrobats all belonged to a sect, a kind of hidden religion, that forbade the taking of any life. There was some divine mother and child they worshipped, which she often thought must be the reason they loved children, and remained in some ways children themselves." (Book 3, p. 307)
"When you and I talk of Heaven we mean different things," he said slowly. "Your world is full of sorcery and darkness, revenge, conquest, and death. Your Heaven is implacable and unfathomable. But I want to live in another kingdom, one where there is no killing, where Heaven is merciful. To rule as emperor I must accept that I am divine, the son of the gods, yet I believe that only the Secret One can be divine, and we are all equal, all his children. I cannot set myself up above others or above him. I don’t expect you to understand. It’s how I was brought up, how I’ve lived till now. It could be argued that that is my destiny." (Book 4, p. 324)
Given that the Genpei War predates Francis Xavier's arrival in Japan by over three hundred years, I'm curious about how these practices sprang up. The narrative makes passing mention that "many sects had sprung up in the years of difficulty and famine, as people sought to understand Heaven’s hostility and placate it," (Book 3, p. 309) but the specific reference to a "divine mother and child" feels to me like a deliberate nod to Kakure Kirishitan beliefs. It's a daring narrative choice to give the emperor a religion that runs counter to the beliefs that legitimize his rule. While I'm not sure I like it, I'm sorry that it wasn't fleshed out in more detail. What could have been an interesting internal conflict was largely glossed over, as we don't spend much time with Yoshimori.
The magical beings in the Tale of Shikanoko, meanwhile, are often the most interesting characters in the tale. Both the Spider Tribe and the tengu operate with alien moral compasses, and the way the five Spider boys gradually develop their own ways of existing in cooperation with or opposition to humans was the storyline I found myself most invested in. The tengu who trains the spider-child Mu and Shikanoko's son Takeyoshi, meanwhile, seems to swing between the roles of wise mentor and comic animal sidekick. He introduces himself by declaring, "you can call me Tadashii, because I am always right" (Book 3, p. 211).
In this case, he isn't. If Hearn wanted to reflect historical linguistics (Pritchett's review very graciously offered this as an excuse for "snow country" being rendered as "yukikuni" rather than the standard "yukiguni"), it would have been Tadashi (which, written differently, passes for a given name) or Tadashiki, depending on whether the adjective is meant to modify a noun. (In the early Kamakura period, the time which corresponds most closely to Shikanoko's setting, the two shiku and ku adjective classes had not yet collapsed into the modern i-adjective used here.)
There are larger problems than these in the Tale of Shikanoko, of course. But Hearn has obviously done a lot of research in the course of writing these books, so the places where she diverges from history or established myth are jarring—like stepping on air where you expected stairs.
Hearn has somewhat diversified her female characters, who in the previous volumes fulfilled standard victim or seductress tropes, with the introduction of Bara/Ibara, a servant woman who learns to fight in pursuit of revenge. Unfortunately, I felt that I didn't get to spend as much time with Bara/Ibara as I wanted to, as she only gets one POV chapter in each book. The lack of time spent on her also causes her romance to feel rushed, though I thought this was a consistent problem with all the relationships in the book.
In general, the depiction of same-sex relationships leaves a lot to be desired, continuing a trend from the opening volumes. The connection between Nagatomo and Eisei, the Burnt Twins who accompany Shikanoko, seems to be less about desire and more a case of last resort—"no one else would ever look on them with desire again," Hearn explains, as they have both worn Shikanoko's mask and are scarred for life by the experience. Meanwhile, Chika (a human youth) and Kiku (of the Spider tribe) are only shown having sex as a way to blow off steam after committing murder.
The heterosexual relationships, of course, are fraught with their own problems—particularly the romance between Shikanoko and Hina. When I read that Shikanoko's mask could only be removed by "a pure spirit who loves him," I found myself groaning out loud. (When Tadashii the tengu elaborates on this condition, saying, "I think it has to be female," I had to stifle another groan. We had a perfectly good setup to demonstrate that true love doesn't have to be romantic or heteronormative, and we just threw it away.)
Fate is too often a lazy excuse to avoid depicting the real, hard work of building and maintaining love. That's certainly what it feels like here. Shikanoko and Hina are apart for all of book three and most of book four. Shikanoko spends years mired in grief in the wake of Akihime's death, while Hina/Yayoi imprinted on him at a young age and has spent those years building up his image in her mind.
I can believe that Hina thinks she's in love. Plenty of people, myself among them, have projected our needs and desires onto a person we've known for all of an hour. But whereas most of us realize what we've done eventually and back off, Hina doesn't. The narrative validates her years of pining for Shikanoko when, via the Power of Love™, she removes the deer mask fused to his face upon their reunion.
Keep in mind that they haven't seen each other since Hina was about twelve, and "twelve or more" years have passed since then. How can Hina say she loves Shikanoko, when she never had much chance to know him in the first place? By the end of the fourth book I still felt as if I had no real sense of who Shikanoko was, and I'd had the benefit of his POV chapters.
That's why his reciprocation of her feelings at the end of the book blindsided me. A love story is like math; you've got to show your work, and Hearn hasn't. You don't see love grow. You don't see the lovers build their love one smile, one kind gesture at a time. "Despite being side by side, Shikanoko and Hina still hardly spoke" on the week-long journey to the capital, and after rescuing Yoshimori they separate again. Shikanoko only realizes his feelings for Hina when looking into Master Sesshin's eyes, which "make you see yourself as you really are, not as you wish you were." It's a convenient plot device, but the payoff doesn't feel earned.
The troubling dynamics don't end there. Pritchett mentioned in her review of Hearn's opening volumes Shikanoko's magically induced rape of the sacred virgin Akihime at the end of book one; that incident is briefly alluded to during a night of meditation in book four, though it's heavily sanitized. Shikanoko hallucinates Akihime's spirit, who tells him that "we disobeyed the gods; we were punished for it […] although what we did together was wrong—we were so young, we knew nothing about the world—our son came from it."
It took me a good minute to scrape my jaw off the floor. For the sake of my blood pressure, I interpreted this as Shikanoko rationalizing his behavior after the fact, rather than Akihime's spirit appearing to him, but I'm not sure that's how Hearn wanted me to take it.
One more interesting place where the Tale of Shikanoko branches off from the Heike is in its treatment of its Taira analogues, the Kakizuki clan. The Tale of the Heike portrays the Taira as deserving their downfall due to hubris, cruelty, and social climbing—particularly Kiyomori, whom I once described in a lecture as "a human bonfire of bad decisions." Hearn has instead chosen to restore the deposed regime. Yoshimori's return to the capital puts an end to the years of drought brought about by his absence, signaling that the land recognizes his divine kingship … but no one really bothers to ask Yoshimori what he wants until it's too late for his opinion to be any good.
In a less rushed story, the tension between Yoshimori's duties and desires would be a compelling narrative in itself. But for a story that is ostensibly about restoring Yoshimori to his rightful throne, we barely see him on the page, much less get into his head. This recurring failure of characterization was, to me, the central problem in Hearn's books: a rushed narrative diffused among so many POV characters that no one voice could truly stand out. On the whole, I found myself wishing that I'd invested my time in rereading the Tale of the Heike instead.