The Tale of the Heike depicts the struggle for power between two rival clans, the Taira and the Minamoto. The main events of The Tale take place from 1156 C.E., when the Taira first rise to power after the Hōgen Disturbance, to 1185 C.E., when the Minamoto clan defeat the Taira in the events of the Genpai War. Following their victory over the Taira, the Minamoto create the Kamakura Bakufu, the first shogunate, establishing a feudalistic form of government. Although the Minamoto were ultimately victorious, The Tale of the Heike, at its core, clearly reflects an elegiac account of the fall of Taira clan; this is evident through the depiction of Taira Kiyomori’s greatness in political conquests, the tragic role of Taira Shigemori, whose efforts at being a capable leader were overshadowed by his father’s cruelty, and the emphasis on the concept of mujo, the impermanence of all things. The first half of the Tale of the Heike focused on the devious acts perpetrated by Taira Kiyomori which eventually led to the downfall of the Taira clan. The author of The Tale of the Heike depicted Kiyomori’s greatness and cruelty in equal light. Kiyomori’s primary concern was to not only maintain the dominance of the Taira, but to also secure influence over the royal family. In “The Naming of the Crown Prince”, when the child emperor Rokujo abdicated, the new emperor has Taira lineage, and Kiyomori, through family ties, became known as Taira Regent. This effectively made Kiyomori the ruler of the country, even though he was not a Fujiwara. This passage exhibited the extent of Kiyomori’s power and influence. In “The Pardon,” Kiyomori granted pardons to two out of three conspirators against the Taira, because he was afraid that their spirits were interfering with his daughter’s pregnancy; if the birth was successful, Kiyomori’s grandson would be a prince, securing the throne for future Taira generations. “The Pardon” showcases Kiyomori’s power to even vanquish vengeful spirits, as well as his greed, because he would have never issued pardons against the conspirators unless he felt it was absolutely necessary. In addition, Kiyomori refused to grant a pardon to the third conspirator, Shunkan, because of his unfaltering need for vengeance.
“The Exile of the Retired Emperor” described how Kiyomori made the bold move to have Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa captured from his palace and placed under house arrest. At this point in the story, Shigemori, Kiyomori’s son, was no longer around to persuade Kiyomori against this, and as a result, Kiyomori became more impulsive in his drive for power. Finally, in “The Death of Kiyomori”, Kiyomori became sick with an illness that caused his body to become so hot that water turned to steam when poured on him. His suffering continued with no one able to give him any comfort, and finally Kiyomori died. Although his fate was deserved, even the author cannot help but feel pity for Kiyomori when it is stated that, “Most sadly, his only escorts must have been the evil deeds he committed so often, come to greet him in the form of horse-headed and ox-headed torturers.” While his actions were often cruel, Kiyomori was an object of admiration because of the power he held and the fear that he instilled. The personalities of Kiyomori and his son, Shigemori, were completely opposite. Kiyomori was depicted as hot-headed, and many times, cruel. Shigemori, on the other hand, was depicted as calm, reasonable, and pious. Throughout the first half of The Tale of the Heike, Shigemori acted as the voice of reason against his father’s brash decisions. In “Horsemen Encounter the Regent,” two groups of Taira and Fujiwara entered into a confrontation, causing the Fujiwara to humiliate Kiyomori’s grandson. Shigemori attempted to dissuade Kiyomori from taking action. However, Kiyomori ignored his son’s advice and exacted his revenge; afterwards, Shigemori pardoned the Fujiwara men.
This story reflected Shigemori’s ongoing attempts to make up for the sins of his father; the events of this story were described as “the first of the Taira clan’s evil deeds.” The story of “The Lesser Admonition” began with Kiyomori’s plans to execute a man who had plotted against the Taira. Shigemori intervened, and managed to talk Kiyomori into sparing the man’s life. Once again, Shigemori acted as the voice of reason, and In “The Matter of the Signal Fires,” Shigemori took a stand against his father, threatening to defend Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa if Kiyomori decided to capture him. All of the Taira sided with Shigemori on the matter. The Taira clan respected Shigemori more than they feared Kiyomori. Shigemori displayed the ultimate act of sacrifice in “An Exchange of Views Concerning a Physician.” Shigemori tried to atone for Kiyomori’s cruelty by praying to the gods to either correct Kiyomori’s ways, or to take his, Shigemori’s, life as payment for his father’s sins. Shigemori dies of an illness shortly after. Although he died to atone for the sins of the Taira clan, Shigemori was well aware of the fate that awaited his father. The story of “The Unadorned Sword” revealed that Shigemori was aware of his coming death; Shigemori claimed that Kiyomori would suffer for his cruelty, and that other members of the Taira clan would not go unscathed. Regardless of his ominous warning, Shigemori’s death was mourned by all: A parent mourns the death of even the most unpromising child, but Shigemori had been the mainstay of a family and sage of a nation, and thus both the personal loss and the blow to the house of Taira were sources of endless sorrow. The court regretted the passing of an upright subject; the Heike lamented the decline of their military capabilities.
In life, Shigemori showed all of the characteristics of an ideal warrior: loyalty, fearlessness, piety, and wisdom. Shigemori’s death was noble; he sacrificed himself for the Taira clan, and was admired for his noble nature. The concept of mujo, impermanence, could be seen in several instances in The Tale of the Heike. In the story of Giō, Kiyomori’s greed caused him to continually grow tired of his various consorts, leading Giō and the other consorts of Kiyomori to the revelation that Kiyomori’s love was impermanent, as was everything in life. The story of “Ariō” told of a boy who was looking for Shunkan, the unpardoned conspirator against the Taira. When Ariō found him, Shunkan was at death’s door. Shunkan was another example of mujo, in that his greatness could not last forever. In the following story, “The Bishop’s Death”, Shunkan starved himself to death, and the Taira were blamed for his suffering. This was the point in The Tale where things take a turn for the worse for the Taira. Mujo was used in the Tale of the Heike to allude to the fact that although the Taira were powerful, all things in life were impermanent, and their reign was bound to come to an end at some point. The Tale of the Heike was an elegy to the greatness of the once-powerful Taira clan. Both Taira Kiyomori and Taira Shigemori were admired and mourned after their deaths, but for very different reasons. Kiyomori was admired for his political conquests, the power he possessed, and the fear that he attached to the Taira name. Shigemori, however, was admired for much nobler traits. Shigemori was the ideal warrior, and managed the Taira clan with strong virtues. The concept of mujo justified the fall of the Heike and made it clear throughout The Tale that all great men will fall, and that power was never permanent.