The Tale of the Heike (平家物語, Heike Monogatari) is a story that follows the fall of the Ise-Heishi branch of the Taira clan — popularly addressed as the Heike due to the epic — during the end of the Heian Period and beginnings of the Kamakura Period in Japanese history. It details the height of the family's power after their victories from the Hogen and Heiji Rebellions to the doom of their family leaders and final members.
While it is famous for detailing the battles of the family, it also gives a narrative view of the important aspects of the medieval culture. For instance, the story includes notes from Chinese history — such as Cao Cao prevailing over his predicament at Guan Du and Xiang Yu's heroics and defeat at Gaixia — as analogies for the characters' feelings. An inclination for the values of Buddhism and the strict teachings regarding a warrior's reputation and behavior are also heavily stressed within the tale.
An author has not been credited because the story is thought to have first been told orally by monks. The monks had two common methods of telling the story; the famous method was through biwa compositions and songs detailing several highlights of the full tale. The other form, which is also said to be how monks passed the story amongst one another, was through reading the story aloud through a total of twelve scrolls — with additional notes attached. As time passed, a compiled version of the story was published for normal reading purposes.
Who actually devised the narrative in the first place has been argued amongst several individuals, including figures within the Fujiwara family, generals from Kamakura, or various monks. Diaries from the Kamakura Period suggest that the narrative has existed since the 12th century, so the possibility of the story being written by a relative tied to the events is not out of the question.
The narrative features a literary style created during the Heian Period, which rearranges ancient Chinese characters with the early formations of Japanese hiragana. Poetry is prevalent within the text, but it has a different rhythm and beat than the typical waka poetry of its time. The reasons for the offbeat structure are said to be caused by its lyrical origins or by creative input from the people who wrote the story. Known for its decorative yet informative recognition of the Chinese language within Japanese culture, The Tale of the Heike is a strongly encouraged text for classical literary studies to this day. The opening poem is particularly famous for demonstrating the story's unique composition as well as its core values.
The Tale of the Heike falls within a genre of Japanese storytelling from the Kamakura Period known as gunki monogatari. These stories present historical events but add fanciful exposition or exaggerations to stress heroism and bravery. Facts are sometimes distorted or ignored in complete favor of a romantic image, not unlike historical fiction in modern culture. In the case with this particular gunki monogatari, however, historical accuracy of the events recorded within the tale is still debated amongst historians and the public. Some argue that the gunki monogatari presents genuine facts since it remains close to the biwa compositions so well loved in Noh theater and culture. They accuse the accepted historical records as "second hand" information for the conflicts, which is true to an extent regarding certain figures.
Perhaps the lashings at historical records is spurned because they denounce popular episodes within the epic. Nasu no Yoichi's name or his shot at the shores of Yashima, for instance, is not found within historical texts; the known figure of his clan that was listed to have been present historically was also at another location during the battle. Even if the tale roughly follows details listed within the Azuma Kagami, The Tale of the Heike still shares common traits for its genre by including religious feats of wonder and yokai.
Two recognized variations of the written version include Genpei Seisuiki and Genpei Tōjoroku. Like the original source, the authors for both books are unknown. However, the Genpei Seisuiki is criticized as the version that deviates the most from its argued inspiration and stays true to only half of the original story. As for why this has occurred, it is a hotly speculated topic amongst critics and a solid explanation has yet to be found. Genpei Tōjoroku is a shorter version of the text and is considered a modern adaption in literature structure compared to its roots.