One of the principal genres of Japanese music of the Kamakura and Muromachi eras is the narrative performance tradition now called heikyoku or heike-biwa. Heikyoku entails performance with biwa of individual stories or episodes from a corpus referred to as Heike monogatari (‘Tale of the Heike’), an account of the late 12th-century Genpei wars that is regarded as the paragon of Japanese medieval literature of the katarimono (narrative derived from an oral performance tradition) genre. The earliest stories appear to have been orally composed and circulated by blind, itinerant biwa players called biwa hōshi, who engaged in both secular and ritual performances of various kinds, including rites of appeasement (chinkonsai) for the spirits of warriors killed in battle. Heike katari (Heike recitation) may first have been performed to give solace to deceased Heike clan courtiers and samurai.
Although Heike katari remained a popular form of narrative performance until at least the late 16th century, by the early 14th century there existed multiple text versions associated variously with authors, scribes and biwa players. The significance of such texts for oral performance by blind professionals has yet to be sufficiently assessed, but the literary and performance traditions must be considered as complementary and mutually influential. A ‘performance-text’ (kataribon) of 1371 created under the supervision of the biwa hōshi Akashi no Kakuichi was treated as the source for printed, reading texts during the Edo period (1603–1868) and has long been acknowledged as the definitive, standard form of the Heike monogatari. It remains unclear whether performing practice continued to involve oral compositional skills, as kataribon texts came to be circulated widely among performers.
The authority of the shoku-yashiki or Tōdō-za guild of blind professional musicians is an important consideration for any assessment of the performance tradition during the Muromachi and Edo periods. Established in the 14th century, the Tōdō-za secured patronage from the highest levels of feudal society. Among six principal schools recognized by the guild, only the Ichikata-ryū continued beyond the end of the Muromachi period. Governed by a heike-biwa player appointed with the approval of the Shogunate, the Tōdō-za guild acted as an administrative body that sought to regulate the activities of all blind musicians until 1871, when it was dissolved by the Meiji government.
By the early Edo period, Heike katari performance had ceased to be a popular art; it had become an élite tradition associated primarily with the upper strata of society, practised under direct patronage of the Shogunate, high-ranking samurai and Buddhist priests. Blind performers began to teach amateur enthusiasts, for whom they provided numerous fixed ‘text-scores’ (fuhon) such as the Heike mabushi of 1776, now acknowledged as an authoritative source by both blind and sighted practitioners. It was at this time that Heike katari came to be referred to as heikyoku (‘Heike music’). This terminology reflects changes in both the reception of the music and its relative textual and performative fluidity; what had been enjoyed as a unified narrative series presented over several hours came to be viewed as a sequence of discrete repertory items in which text and music were fixed and memorized.
The characteristics of modern heikyoku practice suggest its multiple layers of historical formation; each narrative episode (ku) is a patchwork of named vocal and instrumental pattern segments (kyokusetsu or senritsukei), each of which comprises a series of distinctive formulaic phrases interspersed with short introductory and intermediary biwa figures, suggesting an original oral compositional practice. Both the names and melodic character of many patterns suggest the influence of Kamakura-period shōmyō of the Tendai sect. While not aurally verifiable, some instrumental patterns may have been modelled on elements of the gaku-biwa solo repertory. The influence of Edo-period koto and shamisen musics is immediately audible in miyako-bushi tetrachordal formations (1–1– 4) that are prevalent in many kyokusetsu segments.
In recent practice heikyoku has been maintained by two performance traditions based in Sendai and Nagoya. The Sendai tradition is referred to as the Tsugaru school, deriving from the practice of sighted amateurs who were vassals of the Tsugaru daimyō. It is now represented by Tokyo-based students of Tateyama Kōgo (1894–1989). Through use of the Heike mabushi text-score, Tsugaru school performers have had access to a repertory of all of the tale's nearly 200 episodes. Performers of the Nagoya tradition have been blind professional musicians active as practitioners of both heike-biwa and Ikuta-ryū koto, shamisen and sometimes kokyū. They have maintained a repertory of eight heikyoku episodes. In the late 1990s, only one Nagoya school musician, Imai Tsutomu (b 1958), remained active as a performer.
Since the mid-1980s, some attempts have been made to refurbish the heike-biwa performing tradition and to build new audiences, both through modifications and arrangements of repertory items transmitted in the Tsugaru line and reconstructions of items no longer transmitted in the Nagoya line.
Japan, §II, 3: Instruments and instrumental genres, Biwa.