Performance of History and Memory: Extratextual Dimensions of the Tale of the Heike, Japan's Iconic War Tale

Elizabeth Oyler (University of Pittsburgh)
Michael Watson (Meiji Gakuin University)
Susan Matisoff (University of California, Berkeley)
Performing Arts
Torre B, Piso 2, Sala T6
Start time:
31 August, 2017 at 14:00
Session slots:

Short abstract:

This panel explores extratextual dimensions of the Tale of the Heike, illustrating the work's function in mapping and preserving historical memory. We address metatheatrical dimensions of performance practice and the performative role of cultural heritage sites emerging in response to it.

Long abstract:

This panel explores the impact of the fourteenth-century war narrative Tale of the Heike on cultural memory from medieval times to the present, focusing specifically on extratextual dimensions of the work. As one of the most influential works in premodern Japanese culture, the Tale of the Heike was born as a sung text narrating the events surrounding the Genpei War (1180-1185). From its creation in the medieval period, the tale's many episodes served as inspiration for oral and written legends, texts meant to be read, noh plays and other forms of theater. The episodes also left a profound imprint in other contexts, suggesting the fundamental cultural significance performed by the tale beyond the articulation of an important historical narrative. Our intent is to shift the focus of the Tale of the Heike to other kinds of performativity associated with the work. The panel opens with a presentation exploring secretly transmitted pieces of Tale of the Heike recited tradition and their role in recasting the devastations of the war. Why were pieces classified as secret, and what was the cultural significance of learning, preserving, and performing "secret pieces"? The second looks at Earless Hōichi, one of the most famous Heike-related legends, its genealogy, and the way it dramatizes epic performance of the tale in a story about a reciter. What are the motivations for turning the reciter into the subject of narration, and how does that affect the meaning of his custodianship of a vital historical narrative? The final presentation addresses monuments and artifacts related to the Giō episode, exploring how cultural heritage sites associated with the tale appeared around the realm, becoming not only commemorative locations associated with the dead, but also agents who could mobilize that status to economic or political ends. Together, the presentations engage the way the Heike stories become the canvas upon which ever-shifting expectations and interpretations can be drawn.