Japan’s Iliad: Yoko Hiraoka performs “The Tale of the Heike”

(courtesy of the artist)

Like the Iliad or the tale of King Arthur, “The Tale of the Heike” is a vaguely mythologized historical legend that has made a momentous impact on culture and civilization. It is the story of struggle between two clans, the Tairo and Minamoto, for control over Japan. The story is full of battles, temple burning, execution, and romance. It was passed down over the centuries through the oral recitations of blind Buddhist monks, who accompanied their recitals with the music of the biwa, a five-stringed instrument similar to the lute. While some aspects of the performance have changed over the eight centuries that have elapsed since its origin, many of the essential elements–the chant-like vocals and the ancient instrument–linger. The lack of visual performance onstage seems to reflect the original narrators’ blindness: the power of the story is aural.

It is in this long line of tradition that Yoko Hiraoka, an accomplished master of classical Japanese music, will perform “The Tale of the Heike” at the University of Chicago this Thursday. Hiraoka studied under Yamazaki Kyokusui, a biwa master so revered and talented that she was proclaimed a “Living National Treasure” in Japan. The persistence of the traditional methods of performance represents the remarkable impact that this twelfth-century epic has left on Japanese culture.

Listening to a biwa performance can be a jarring experience. It starts with a soft, high vibration. Slowly, the sound mounts and the tone lowers. The friction of the plectrum (a fan-like tool used to strum the biwa) against the strings produces a wailing vibration; the chords are struck repeatedly and forcefully. When the voice enters, it is deep and drawn out, a veritable howl. Each word seems to echo as it fades into the next.

After getting over the initial shock of the deep voice and sharp strings, the chanting draws the listener in. The surprisingly versatile vocal medium was very successful in conveying the mood of the plot. The short bursts of the biwa punctuate the voice of the singer. The pitch varies, alternating between low and piercingly high. Fast, repetitive strumming conveys urgency; slow strums evoke calmness. While the combination of the wailing voice and repetitive strumming would seem to create a sense of portent and fear, the variation instead conveys action and movement. The English libretto helps to clarify the particulars in the actual performance, albeit on top of an already established emotional foundation. The traditionally dressed musician sitting composedly in the middle of a blank stage creates a strange and remarkable juxtaposition with the piercing music. The result captures a full range of emotions and events: anger, battle, betrayal, and love.

In addition to the traditional song and biwa recital, Hiraoka will supplement her performance with a projected slideshow of illustrations from “The Tale of the Heike.” The story has provided inspiration for Japanese art for as long as it has been recited and performed. Many of the most stunning illustrations date from the Edo Period (1615-1868), which produced large and brightly colored depictions of the epic’s battle scenes. A strong sense of motion dominates these images: bodies clash together, horses are caught in mid-leap, and boats collide. The activity in these images reflects the sometimes violent sounds of the biwa, yet their stillness echoes that of the performer, adding another interesting tension to the performance. The audience will have all of their senses occupied while witnessing this ancient art form that still manages to create a strong, emotional impact after centuries of tradition.
Ida Noyes Hall, Third Floor Theater. 1212 E. 59th St. Thursday, February 4. 6:30pm. Free. ceas.uchicago.edu