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Let’s talk Heike Monogatari 談談平家物語吧

Let’s talk Heike Monogatari



Or called Tales of the Heike. But I prefer to say Heike Monogatari, as the word monogatari provides an extra dimension that tales fails to fully capture.

英文又翻做Tales of the Heike(平家故事)。但我喜歡稱Heike Monogatari, monogatari相較tale含意上更多一層次。


To begin, I read the English translation by Helen McCullough, which is written in more plain narrative than the original sung performance. A Chinese translation will no doubt retain more of its original colour, someday I hope to come across one.


首先,我讀的是Helen McCullough的英文翻譯本,在撰寫上選擇比較白話的敘述,而非原本來詠讀的詞語。中文翻譯會更貼近原文的韻味,希望有天能讀看看。


The tale follows the rise and fall of the Taira clan (also called Heike, House of Hei, as Taira can be read as Hei), their ascent to power enough that eclipsed the throne, to their final destruction, the very last of their blood extinguished by their long time rival Genji clan (also called Minamoto).




The book consists of 3 phases. The gradual build up to the death of Kiyomori and of open warfare, the back and forth till the last battle at Dan-no-ura, and the last third where the remaining Heike meets their end. Within each are several chapters, each a collection of passages of various lengths, ranging from half a page to 5-6 pages. Some tightly follows, others loosely related, and some travels back in time to provide context to events or characters.


整本書可分三大段。慢慢鋪陳到平 清盛之死,戰火燃起。雙方來回爭戰到最終的壇ノ浦之戰。最後一段為剩下的平氏成員最終的下場。每段有許多章,內另細分許多小節,有的只有半頁到有的五,六頁。有的間故事直接延續,有的有所相連,有的則回朔到過去,解釋當下事情或人物的緣由。


It’s an epic tale that not only depicts some of Japan’s most iconic historic characters and events, but more significantly for me, it illuminates the culture of the time when the tales are performed.




I started the book expecting it to be similar to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms which I am well familiar with. Gradually I came to the opinion that perhaps the Water Margin is the more apt comparison, with a wider cast of characters, the focus on martial prowess. But even that is drawing a loose line, there is nothing in Water Margin akin to the expertly crafted short passages which while not adhering to one tight narrative nor structure, yet at same time harmoniously fits together thematically. Heike Monogatari is very much its own style, comparisons cannot be drawn easily.




What really struck me was not so much the tales and characters, but how much references to Chinese there are. The courtier would cite Confucian ideals, the three sovereigns and five emperors, and of the Emperors of Tang as precedent. Or draw analogies to Liu Ban and Xiang Yu, of Wang Man of Han, of the rebellion of An Lushan. There was even included an entire passage of the story of Jing Ke’s failed assassination of Shihuangdi of Qin.




I had always known Heian period was strongly influenced by Chinese culture, but never thought it to be to this degree. The book would have been an incredibly hard read for foreigners, not only having to face unfamiliar Japanese names and locations, but also characters and events of a place different than the one currently being read about. Infact, I wonder how much of the Chinese references will be understood by Japanese.




Given the incredible amount of Chinese references, it is surprising, and also unsurprisingly, that there aren’t any to the Three Kingdoms period. Probably the best known Chinese period in modern times thanks to the popularity of the aforementioned Romance of the Three Kingdoms in related media if not, sadly, the original book.




It makes sense of course, when one consider that Romance of the Three Kingdoms was not written until the Yuan-Ming period ~1300. And Heiki Monogatari had taken shape in some form in the Kamakura period, also around ~1300, likely predating the books. Without the Romance it was likely that the period did not hold enough influence to be considered iconic events to be referenced.




The book is interesting in that there are no protagonists to speak of. The Romance had the three brothers, Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, after their fall the lead was taken up by Zhuge Liang, then his protege Jiang Wei. And the Water Margin strictly followed the core heroes of the 108.




While Heike also passes focus from Kiyomori to Koremori, Yoshinaka and Yoshitsune, the narrative does not treat them as favourites. It does not paint the Taira nor the Genji as being in the right (as Romance does for Shu), nor wholly wrong. Even the imperial house under Go-Shirakawa could hardly be considered pillars of righteous virtues. The story is about them, but also not about them. It is this air of impartiality that differentiates it from the other novels.




As the monogatari begins in its very first sentence. The sound of the Gion bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sala flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.




The story can best be characterized by a fatalism of fate and fleeting nature of things. An almost tranquil, matter of fact stating. Rather than brought to cheer for or dislike any particular characters, one is led to pity and worry, for in defeat speckle of honour and bravery shines, and even in triumph an air of sorrow permeates.




Kiyomori, the tyrant of late Heian court. The narrative paints a dark image of the man, as a man full of anger and bereft of humble sense. His wanton acts led to the death of his son and hope of the people Shigemori. Without Shigemori’s restraint on his father, Kiyomori’s full fury is laid bare. His last dying words, instead of some longing for his family or retrospection of life, were ones wishing for death upon his adversaries.




The weight of his sins were carried by his sons. While they, too, were party to the Taira’s indulgences and cruel acts, towards the end I was moved to feel for their suffering. Fathers, husbands, sons, brothers. Poets, musicians, scholars. People of qualities, courageous, skilled, masterful. Who amongst us is not human. Frail people caught up in the fortunes given.




And what of Yoshinaka? The Genji that first defeated and drove the Taira out of the capital? A masterful tactician whose sin was being an uncouth man from the countryside. The man fought to the end and died bravely with his brother Imai who killed himself by leaping off his horse with holding the sword in his mouth.




Or Yoshitsune? A small man who destroyed the Taira and brought order to the country, then driven to rebellion by his suspicious brother.




So many deserved death yet lived, so many deserved life yet died. Some are rewarded by their compassion, others died by the very those they spared. Some found peace before their ends in the buddha, others laughing as they went in storms of glory.

The world’s nature is one of fleeting beauty, life is but an illusive dream. The flowers of spring after a night’s rain carpets the earth. The red of autumn after a gust welts and scatters amidst the mountains and rivers. Such is the essence of Heike Monogatari.






Star Wars Force Awaken thoughts

First of all, wheee. It was awesome.


Now that’s out of the way, let’s get into the finer discussions. And, SPOILERS!!! Stop now if you don’t like spoilers.





To make things very clear, I am a moderate SW fan, particularly in the Expanded Universe, having maybe about 20 books on the shelf including the X-Wing series and Thrawn books.


Before going into the movies I have mostly overcome the initial anger of them discarding the EU, however that is only as far as acceptance that ignoring the EU (which to be perfectly fair, had too much share of convoluted trash), and that by starting a new they had a chance to build something coherent and more in tune with real life practicalities. It is not a carte blanche for them to just create anything they wanted though. Fairly or unfairly, my standards are set at the Thrawn trilogy. They had best create plot and characters on par with Thrawn and Kardde, failing that they will not get the thumbs up from me.


They do not get the thumbs up from me.

It is a fantastic film, and perhaps even a A rate film for people who had only ever seen the movies. There is plenty of things for fans to love too.

Like sand dunes? Check

Like girrbly robot with cool tricks? Check

Like ATAT? Check

Like Star Destroyers? Check

Like speederbikes against a sunset? Check

Like weird space monsters? Check

Like the Falcon? Check

Like daring rescues? Check

Like bad guy with a mask? Check

Like trench runs? Check

Like flying through narrow openings? Check

Like Death Stars? Check

I got my chuckles, and it’s clear they understood what make Star Wars iconic.


That said, the whole film is somewhat let down by their attempt to shoe-horn some kind of transition from the old cast to the new. At its premise it’s not a bad idea, a kind of carrying on the torch moment, but it’s just not done that well I feel. The film simply did not have enough screen time to introduce 4 next gen characters while simultaneous trying to fit Han, Leia and Luke back in and still give each major roles.


As a result the whole thing felt rushed, and the time gap never really got filled in. Last we knew the Emperor was dead and presumably the Empire was falling apart with open rebellions. Next we know there’s some First Order baddies that’s probably the remnant of the Empire (but no explanation of how that transition happened), is ruled by some bad emperor like figure that’s neither called Emperor nor Lord nor Darth. Sithspawn, we’re not even sure that’s a sith.

There’s a Republic which we have no idea whether it’s what became of the Rebellion, which holds Coruscant and is some kind of major power around with unknown relations with the new bad Order.

Then we have the Resistance, which is kind of like the Rebellion, looks like the Rebellion, uses the Rebellion emblem, but is not called the Rebellion for whatever reason, and is also not clear of their strengths compared to the Order, only that the Republic is kinda sorta backing them.

The world setting is just a bunch of strange conveniences that does whatever the heck it needs to be at that moment in time that leaves so many strange holes.

If the Republic is the former Rebellion, why aren’t they in open war with the Order? If they now controls the Core systems, why does it seem to have no major presence and is apparently overwhelmed after losing just 5 worlds (I counted, that not-a-death-star shoots 5 beams). Even assuming the Republic had been at a nervous truce with the Order and the Core world sector fleet was completely wiped out along with the planets, what about the rest of the fleet elsewhere and all the other planets? Why didn’t they come to the Resistance’s aid?

It all felt very very strange like in Star Trek (reboot) when the Enterprise fights Nero in Earth orbit with nothing else around, I can buy the Federation earth fleet being blown to pieces at Vulcan and the rest of the fleet regrouping elsewhere, but what about planetary defenses? Non-warp ready fighters? That drill was in San Fran bay, any craft with a gun could have shot it down.

And why is the new bad guy so terrible? I can buy that maybe they didn’t want Kylo to be too powerful and kind of an amateur Sith, but the guy simply had no presence. He looks up to Darth Vader yet he’s a whiny brat who has anger issues. It’s like 120% Anakin, the guy was that terrible. He was not menacing, not scary, heck, not even evil. Even his attempt to woo Rey to the dark side was cringe worthy. “I can teach you to use it?” Really? You couldn’t even say how much more powerful you can make her? Or how you can reunite her with her family? Couldn’t even ask her to join you? Best you could think of was volunteering to be her creepy teacher?

Kylo is like a trashy villain henchmen except he’s supposed be the Darth Vader in this. For all of the prequel’s faults, at least Darth Maul was terrible (in the way Tokien uses the word, scary and mighty), and Dooku played by Christopher Lee was both gentlemanly, classy and had somewhat of a noble goal (if convoluted and hard to say if sincere). Kylo felt like an angry teen who went on a road rage because mommy and daddy didn’t love him enough. He made mistakes after mistakes, didn’t even show that other evil officer guy his place when Darth Vadar struck fear into even Grand Moff Tarkins. Seriously if they intend for his redemption story (which you can see coming ten parsecs away) to have any impact, they had best rethink his portrayal because as it stands, he’s the new Jar Jar (and no, not the rumored Darth Jar Jar way).

On the good guy’s side. Rey is pretty awesome, she’s independent, kicks ass and quick thinking, a more serious version of Han. Her character does not have a defining moment or characteristic and lacks some motives for what she’s doing, but I can see her elevating above the rest of the rabble.

Finn, not so much. He’s a lost boy and played very well as a bit clueless in the film, but I do not like the arch-type which he plays, the kind of love struck kid filled with self doubt yet is lucky and triumphs simply by charging ahead. Why did they give him a lightsaber and more importantly, make him halfway competent with it? Is it just to make people think he’s the chosen Jedi in the trailers? It’s not believable and dilutes his character by not giving him a distinctive fighting style (or if he also becomes a Jedi, I’ll criticize it still as too much luck and coincident).


In terms of visual, plot and direction, Force Awakens is top notch, and it is really the characters so far that’s a real let down.


They need someone with a presence, someone who whenever is on screen the world naturally revolves around, have defining moments, lines and actions that are memorable and become distinctly associated with the character (Han’s I have a bad feeling, Lando’s Deal getting worse, Luke’s NOOOOOO, Vader’s force choking…etc), because so far this ensemble cast isn’t cutting it.







Sony and the three unicorns

Sony and the Three Unicorns


I will admit, I am still giddy about the whole thing. Work had been stupid all day with more red tapes and yet I’ve just been laughing through it with not the slightest care. Life is good, being a gamer is good.


For those not into gaming, E3 is the biggest video game conference in the world and every year publishers and platform holders will announce new projects, demo announced ones and showcase their lineups. The attention is always on the big 3, Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft as they are the major gaming platform holders.


Games get announced every year, some big, some small. Some for kids, some for sports fans, it’s all good fun. But every once in a while, you get announcements that are bombs and blow everyone away.


Then there are the legends. Gaming mythical beasts that only exists in fan’s wildest imaginations. Games whose predecessors had been critically received and loved, and yet no sequels to finish the journey. Games that have defined its genre and generation but has been worn down by the passage of time and there are calls for remakes to return the game to its former glory. And games that have been seen, but disappeared into nothingness as time went by, so called development hells perhaps never to emerge.


Bringing just one of these mythical beasts to E3 would grab the attention of all gamers, smash headlines and ignite social media in frenzy. Just one, will do.


This year, Sony brought 3, and some of the most elusive of gaming’s unicorns at that. The Last Guardian, FF7 Remake, Shenmue 3. It was the wildest of conferences, so surreal that if one travelled back in time to the day before and told people about it, all would laugh and dismiss one as a troll. One unicorn, maaaybe by a long shot. Three? So ludicrous it’s not even worth contemplating.


The first unicorn, The Last Guardian, was announced just 5 minutes into Sony’s conference presentation, it was a bold statement.


This is a unicorn of Sony’s own making. Originally announced near a decade ago for the PS3, a continuation of a series of well received games by Team Ico, it disappeared not long after with constant rumours of its true fate. Sony’s been assuring people that the unicorn still lives, but most wonder whether Sony accidentally fed it rotten feed and really there’s now a dead unicorn in their barn and they’re just going Baghdad Ali about it.


The Last Guardian because of its status of being Sony’s own doing, while a fan favourite was not going to be received well had it showed up by itself, practically begging for snide remarks of “about time” after any initial shock wears off. It was potentially more a blot on Sony’s repute than a PR win.


But this is where Sony’s brilliance shows, and why they held off on the re-reveal for so long.


Sony had one unicorn, and it was one unicorn it controlled and could unleash at will. So Sony bid their time for the moment.


The second unicorn is the FF7 remake. Probably the best known RPG, it was the symbol of Square’s glory days. Fans talked about remaking it, but most dismissed it as being too expensive and Square Enix too out of tune to greenlight such project.


Indeed SE infamously trolled fans last year at the PSX by announcing a FF7 port. A freaking port, of the original game. When the announcement trailer was shown fans’ had high hoped, high hopes that were subsequently crushed in tears and curses.


In retrospect, I’m pretty sure SE intended that troll to throw people off about the rumours of the FF7 Remake. SE making a port made sense, announcing it at a high profile conference in front of the world didn’t, at the time anyway. As a result it culminated in the most dramatic roller coaster amongst fans. As Adam Boyes began his speech of Final Fantasy’s history, and the cinematic began to roll, Fans went between dismay to dry laughter of not going to be fooled again, to reserved trepidation, to excitement restrained for fear of hopes being eviscerated yet again. The trailer was masterfully done, the narration foreboding, hinting but never certain. People knew it was FF7, it had Barret, and Cloud! But in what form? A spin-off? A movie?


Then finally in a confident, daring statement, the trailer closed with nothing but the FF7 logo, followed by the words remake. There were no mention of FF7 anywhere. The flashes of midgar, shot from the back of two strolling characters and their iconic weapons, the meteor logo, was all that was needed.

It was as if saying “Hell yeah mate, look who’s here. You know me”

FF7 Remake made people delirious, people went wild. This was the second unicorn, one which practically lived in that patch of pasture next to TLG. Sony have a close relationship with SE and while they do not control it, was in the position to be in the know and exert some influence on it.


And to their benefit, after Microsoft abandoned the Japanese gaming scene Sony had no competition, the only question is whether SE would announce it at Sony or their own conference, which is easy enough to remedy – ka-chin!.


A clever insert of a indie game segment allowed people to calm down, for what had been shown to sink in a little.


Then the final unicorn was shown.


Whereas FF7 relied on its iconic imagery to unveil to the fans, the final unicorn was revealed in even more brilliance. There was no foreshadowing, no hints of what is to come. Something coming to kickstarter, that’s it. Shenmue have perhaps one of, if not the most iconic main theme for games. The screen went black, and the music came on. Fans who have played the game and many who didn’t but admired it (like me), immediately recognized the music. But it could not possibly be.


Then the petals began to fall. Another Shenmue icon, flower petals fell across the screen before the words Shenmue was revealed. It was emotional. It was cathartic. Shenmue’s grand, longing and rueful music was itself a description of the series’ sad fate, enduring 14 years of abandonment, a dream kept alive only by the most devoted die hard fans. They had been laughed at, mocked, told to give up their wish for a sequel for 14 years and to move on. Yet, some never gave up hope.

This was the third unicorn, one of gaming’s greatest most have resigned to be entombed in the museum, here, revived. People cheered for FF7 Remake, now, they wept.

Like one day when you were in primary school the family had to move house but your dad forgets your dog and it goes missing. You beg all the neighbours and nailed posters in a 10k radius yet no one has seen a hair of your dog. Every year you go back to the neighbourhood to look for him. It’s your last year of uni and mom and everyone tells you that Lucky is in a better place now (but you know he isn’t) and you need to move on.

Then on your graduation day you see a mangy hairball wander up the hallway.


This was Sony’s brilliance. It controlled the first unicorn, had good knowledge and influence over the second unicorn, but could not control the timing of the third. Unlike FF7 Remake a kickstarter cannot be delayed, Yu Suzuki would announce Shenmue 3 if and when the time comes, whether Sony is there to stand by it or not.


So Sony pitched in to control the timing of the reveal. And in one brilliance stroke, brought 3 unicorns to E3.


Investing in Shenmue 3 is a big risk for Sony. They do not own the IP and given the possible audience, is very likely expecting a loss or at best, meager returns. Which is perhaps why Shenmue had to go the way of kickstarter with Sony as one of the backing investors, sing the kickstarter to gauge how much interest there really is after long 14 years in the series, and hopefully use this as a guide to decide how much to ultimately pitch in. And even then this was risky. Can you imagine the headline if the kickstarter failed to garner even the measly 2 million required? Sony triumphant rides out on the unicorn and next moment the unicorn just falls over and dies? Sony will be forever associated as the one that rode the unicorn to its doom.


No mistake, FF7 Remake and Shenmue are two of the biggest myths out there. Only Half Life 3 is bigger, but that one is firmly locked in Valve’s towers.


By releasing 3 at once, Sony ensured their reveal would amplify each other, reaching heights not possible had they been shown individually.


Yep, Shenmue.. grown men reduced to tears