As an epic poem with its roots in the stories told by travelling bards, telling the story of the Genpei War from a wide range of perspectives, The Tale of the Heike isn’t exactly an easy thing to adapt—into any medium, let alone an 11-part anime series. But by drawing on Hideo Furukawa’s 2016 novelisation, studio Science Saru’s The Heike Story is making a bold attempt, and two episodes in, it’s shaping up to be something remarkable.
The Heike Story tells the classic tale through the eyes of Biwa, a young girl cursed with terrifying visions of the future. After seeing her father cut down in cold blood by warriors from the powerful Taira clan, she meets Taira no Shigemori, the clan’s heir and one of the few people within it who seem to take issue with their violent and underhanded ways of claiming influence within the Imperial court. When Biwa foresees the fall of the Taira as a result of their own ambitions, Shigemori decides to take her into his care in an effort to change the course of history.
In the space of two episodes, Biwa has already made her mark as a child carrying a lot of pain and sorrow, but who’s also playful, feisty, and never afraid to speak her mind—in a society where, as a girl, she’s expected to do exactly the opposite. The nuance in her characterisation is already impressive, and Aoi Yuki’s emotional performances already have her firmly grounded as the emotional core of a show that, by design, revolves around a lot of cold, calculating figures.
She’s also a fascinating way of tying this adaptation to The Tale of the Heike’s oral storytelling roots. Her prophetic visions aren’t just a catalyst for the story, but a way of incorporating the poetic nature of Heike’s origins into the way the narrative unfolds—she bears witness to the tales those biwa-playing monks would tell, only before they started being told. The Heike Story is still following the same trajectory as the original tale, albeit in a more modern, linear fashion, but Biwa’s visions—and the occasional in-world poetic recitation, for good measure—do a nice job of bringing the story’s history into the fold.
The Heike Story is also shaping up to be an unflinching reflection on the inequities of the Heian era in which it’s set, particularly when it comes to gender. The limitations and expectations placed on women are a recurring theme, with tragic reflections on girls being married off before they even reach double digits and grim depictions of a society where breeding potential and quiet servitude are seen as a woman’s only possible contribution. It’s heartbreaking and confronting, but also played with care and sensitivity, keeping women at the centre of their own stories, and it definitely seems like something that the show will explore in depth over the course of its run.
In keeping with the classical setting, the art style in The Heike Story draws heavily on the yamato-e paintings of the Heian era. The costuming, scene composition, and use of colour all wear that influence clearly, giving the whole show a suitably historic feel. There’s plenty of modern influence, too, particularly when it comes to the details in the character designs—Biwa especially—and the fluid animation. The Heike Story isn’t a painting in motion the way that something like The Tale of Princess Kaguya was, but a mesmerising blend of classical influence and modern style.
In its opening episodes, The Heike Story leaves a strong impression. It’s intimately tied to the history it draws from, in terms of both storytelling traditions and the events it depicts, but it’s also taking the opportunity for some thoughtful reflection on the realities of that history, and the lessons we might learn from it. This is shaping up to be one of best new anime series of the season.
The Heike Story is streaming now on Funimation, with new episodes out weekly.