This tragedy follows the decline of the Minamoto, or Heike, the family that dominated Japan in the few decades before the beginning of the period of the Shogunate. It's history, for a change, from the loser's point of view. Though fully aware of the faults of the Heike, those who wrote the book soon after their fall still see the tragedy from their perspective, and can see all their merits - their elegance, poetry and music - as well as their sins.
Even in translation, the sorrow of the long war and exile of these men and women is intense. The start is slow: it chronicles the wrongdoings of the Heike, some of which are dramatic and interesting (burning monasteries) and most of which are not (giving too many court appointments to allies). But once the war starts, the tale weaves together elegiac beauty, dramatic battles, and sorrow for a lost world.
It allows you to see into the (rather foreign) mindset of the era - to sympathise with, as well as understand, the courtly culture, aesthetic obsession, and very fatalistic Buddhist worldview.
The translation reads very well, but the notes are sparse. This edition plainly isn't meant for the reading public. There is a lot of material on the composition of the tale and on its literary features, but very little on the culture, religion and poetry, which is not easy to understand. In particular, there's lots of beautiful poetry which is hard to understand without footnotes explaining its references and imagery. Even if you are familiar with Heian poetry some of it is sadly utterly obscure without this.
That said, if you have read some earlier Japanese literature - The Tale of Genji, Pillow book of Sei Shonagon, perhaps others - you will find that the book is not only understandable, but powerfully emotional. You will see that earlier Heian culture slowly decline before your eyes, see the tragedy, the danger of hubris, the humanity of great men and women. It's one of the world's great dramatic tales.
The Tale of the Heike or the Heike Monogatari originated like the Iliad and Odyssey as a cycle of folk-tales sung by wandering blind minstrels called the biwa oshi (the biwa is a kind of lute and oshi is a Buddhist title meaning 'master of the doctrines' generally given to monks and itinerant holy men) recounting the rise to power of the Heike or Taira clan in the late 12th century and the bloody Genpei war which ended with their destruction and the establishment of Minamoto Yoritomo as the first Shogun. Collected into its present form by an editor of genius called Kakiuchi between 1340 and 1371 and handed down to posterity by a guild dedicated to the performance of this work alone, the Heike has inspired countless traditional dramas, ballads and poems and in 20th century Japan has been used as the basis of best-selling novels, films, TV serials and comics. Anyone who is familiar with both the later period of the Shogunate as popularised by the Samurai films of Kurosawa or the eponymous TV series or with the earlier period captured so perfectly in the Tale of Genji when Japan was ruled by a charmingly refined and effete court aristocracy, will find the Tale of the Heike a strange hybrid of the two with the warrior heroes of the feuding Heike and Genji clans dragging enemies from their saddles and twisting off their heads for later display but in the intervals between battle expressing their feelings with a refinement that belongs to the world of the Heian court. While the fate of the Heike is largely decided on the battlefield, at this stage what they and their enemies are fighting for are still positions of power in a complex and faction-ridden imperial court with wonderfully silly titles like the Tango Gentleman-in-Waiting and rituals like the Imperial Assumption of the Trousers which seem to have wandered in from Monty Python. The comic and supernatural elements in medieval Japanese literature are also well illustrated by such episodes as the attack of the Thrush Monsters (not a pleasant thought...) However while such incidents lighten the mood, the work as a whole is suffused with a haunting Buddhist melancholia which gets deeper and deeper as the hubris of the Heike clan brings them to closer to their tragic (and this being medieval Japan spectacularly bloody) fall - since reading this book I am continually reminded that like the Heike we too are still living in 'the latter days of the law' when all one can reasonably expect from the world is a long age of decline and decay where noble intentions only lead to tragedy and triumph is inevitably followed by disaster. My main criticism of this edition is that in order to avoid the authorial voice being broken up by footnotes, 50 pages of 'reference material' are added at the end of the book which give us the emperor lists, family trees, chronology, maps and a glossary of terms to which you do have to occasionally refer to make sense of the action. These are however sometimes just not detailed enough to be of much help - this is particularly true of the maps which do not allow you to follow the various journeys and campaigns properly (think of someone with only a vague idea of US history and geography trying to follow an account of the American Civil War with a couple of one page maps that only show the state boundaries and the immediate vicinity of Washington DC - it's not altogether impossible but could have been made easier). In addition while it is precisely the host of minor characters who only appear a handful of times that you are most likely to forget and need to look up, only the most important characters (and not even all of those) are listed in the glossary and there is no index or bibliography at all - which is surprising in a scholarly book. However these niggles aside the very lack of familiar referants and the unfamiliarity of its heroes and their world does give this book a mythic quality which seems far closer to the spirit of the Icelandic Sagas, Homer and the Nibelungenlied than the relatively late date at which they were collected suggests. One of those rare things: a genuine classic of world literature waiting for your discovery.
As one of Japan's most important pieces of historical literature, the Tale of the Heike provides a glimpse into the last days of the courtly Heian period, just as it was replaced by the Kamakura Shogunate at the end of the Twelfth Century. Those readers accustomed to stories of Sixteenth-Century samurai will find this an interesting change of pace. The sensibilities revealed in the narrative provide an interesting insight into the thought processes of the people of medieval Japan. McCullough's translation is very good; her prose is compact, but maintains the poetic quality of the original texts with a minimum of distracting footnotes.