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The Tale of the Heike is a long narrative about the fall of the Taira clan and the victory of the Minamoto. It has no single author and was probably compiled from various oral sources, but it does present a comprehensive tale of the rise and fall of Kiyomori, and the end of the Heian era with the Genpei war.

The sympathies of the Heike is with the Taira, who are presented as tragic aristocrats, overcome by the rough forces of the provincial Minamoto. Yet the tale nonetheless valourizes the courage and shrewdness of the Minamoto, especially Minamoto Yoshitsune, even as it laments the downfall of the Taira.

The Tale of the Heike is a one of a genre of gunki monogatari (military tales) and has played a significant role in shaping military ethics and values: personal loyalty to one's lord; negation of the self; self-sacrifice unto death; an austere and simple life; control of the appetites and emotions; an honourable death. Loyalty to one's lord superseded all other loyalties, even to one's family and children whose lives, in extreme situations, could be sacrificed to protect the life of one's lord.

The Tale of the Heike is a huge, episodic work meant to be recited and heard, rather than read. It covers 90 years, from 1131 to1221. It was recited throughout the land by biwa-hoshi, blind monks who memorized the tale and retold it while they played the biwa, or lute.

It became familiar among common people, and to this day its episodes have the cultural familiarity of the Bible or Arthurian legends in the West. Its breadth, style, meaning, organization, and cultural significance make it second in importance only to The Tale of Genji.

The entire tale was probably written down sometime between 1198-1221. The definitive version was transcribed in 1371. The later version clearly indicates revision and additions that promote and glorify military valour.

Important motifs in the Heike are: history (chronological order, sections begin with dates; sense of religious epic (Kiyomori's arrogance leads to his downfall and the fall of his clan); elegy (the tale begins and ends with a tolling temple signalling defeat and death); the rise of the warrior class (military values extolled, especially courage, loyalty, leadership, emotional ties between men and their commander); conflict of old values (court) with new (provincial military).

The Buddhist overtones in the work are clearly pronounced, especially of the Jodo or Pure Land sect, and are set forth in its opening lines about The Bell of Gion.

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