A great book. Really. Quite moving, no doubt. In a lot of ways, it resembles The Tale of the Heike (平家物語) and Yoshitsune (義経記), not surprisingly: They are all considered gunkimono(軍記物), warfare tales from one of the most bloody periods in Japanese history from the 12th to 16th century.
The Heike is about the rise and the fall of the Heike family from the time Kiyomori reaches the height of glory. Descriptions of him are definitely not flattering: He keep getting described as being crass, provincial, and unfeeling. One of the examples of how cruelly he is portrayed is in the story ofGioh, a female entertainer: Gioh was the most favored entertainer of Kiyomori until Hotoke came along and replaced her–except that Hotoke only was granted audience in front of Kiyomori because Gioh pleaded with Kiyomori to give her a chance. Hotoke, not wanting to kick out Gioh, pleads with Kiyomori not to kick her out, but Kiyomori doesn’t listen. However, feeling so bad that she ended up kicking Gioh out of her place, Hotoke grows glum so Kiyomori invites Gioh to sing and entertain Hotoke. With much urging from her mother, Gioh goes and entertains Hotoke in Kiyomori’s presence. After this, she takes the tonsure along with her sister and mother and goes to live in a hut in the countryside (a la Kamono Chomei 鴨長明 of Hojoki 方丈記). A few years later, Hotoke comes to join them and the four women live in peace until the end of their lives.
Similar to Kiyomori, Yoritomo is described in unflattering ways as crass and provincial, but not unfeeling. In fact, both in Gikeiki and The Tale of the Soga Brothers, Yoritomo, “the bad guy” in both tales, is portrayed as quite sensitive and easily moved (although not quite compassionate). The one who is always stopping Yoritomo from saving the lives of dissenters is Kajiwarano Kagetoki 梶原景時 who keeps advising Yoritomo not to save the lives of whomever was acting like a good samurai–like Soga Goro, in the The Tale of the Soga Brothers.
Yoshitsune is about the fall of Yoshitsune, the younger brother of Yoritomo, who ruled during the period called Kamakura (1192-1334). Yoshitsune is a story that portrays Yoshitsune’s life in quite a tragic light. He is such a good fighter and manages to win some crucial battles to help the Genji family win back their power which had been taken over by the Heike famil by Kiyomoti. However, after all the warring, Yoshitsune is suspected to be plotting again his brother, Yoritomo, who was being advised by (guess who?) Kagewara no Kagetoki. So, Yoshitsune has to flee with his comical and amazing fighter servant/monk Musahibo Benkei. Yoshitsune is this really kind and gentle courtly guy who has deep feelings for all the women who he sleeps with (a la Hikaru Genji in The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki). The story of how Shizuka, Yoshitune’s most loved lover (though not his wife), dies is really really sad. She manages to flee part way, but is captured byYoritomo. She is not killed because she is only a woman (that’s the way they thought), but she is carrying a child of Yoshitsune so they decide to kill the baby if it is a boy and let it live if it is a girl. What comes out of her… was of course a boy so the baby is immediately taken away and killed. A while later, after she is released, she fades out of this world, at the young age of nineteen.
So, how much more tragic can the story of the Soga brothers be? I am not sure. But it is pretty sad. Perhaps more pitiful too since the previous two stories of the Heike and Yoshitsune are about people more central to the government. The tale of the Soga brothers is about two poor (for samurai) brothers who planned revenge on another samurai who killed their father. Their mother tries to stop them (she has remarried and Soga is their adoptive father’s last name) as well as other relatives who hear of their plan. But they are determined to pay revenge and so they do. I have read up to the second to the last chapter–where the younger brother Goroh states his case in front of Yoritomo and is executed. I wrote all of this down to get myself motivated to read the rest and to put some of my thoughts together. Let’s see how it works…