So...this anime literally came right out of nowhere. Announced in September 2021, premiering not even weeks afterward, it caught a lot of people by surprise, especially the staff behind it. Directed by Naoko Yamada, who left KyoAni to join Science SARU which did the animation, with a screenplay by Reiko Yoshida, adapting one of Japan's oldest pieces of literature. I was all in. I mean, one of anime's most beloved female directors working on a show that promised beautiful animation and gripping political intrigue, taking place in the Heian era and starring a female lead? How could I not want to watch it? In an endless sea of generic ecchi and bottom-of-the-barrel isekai that get churned out every year, I was damn ecstatic to watch Heike Monogatari. It's no secret that my favorite anime of all time is Shounen Onmyouji, which is also based on literature that takes place during the Heian era and has supernatural leanings (Though Shounen Onmyouji is based on light novels). I was sure I was going to absolutely adore Heike Monogatari. But in case the rating didn't clue you in, I might have set my expectations too high.
Nobody knows who wrote the original Tale of the Heike, though this particular anime is based on the modern Japanese rendition by one Hideo Furukawa, and Heike Monogatari is the first animated adaptation of the epic novel. The anime's story goes as follows: Biwa is a young girl who has the gift of seeing into the future, but is told by her father to hide it. When her father is killed by the Taira clan's personal enforcers, Biwa is left an orphan until a member of the Taira (also known as the Heike), Shigemori, hears of her plight. Taking pity on her and because he himself can see spirits of the dead, therefore seeing in her a kindred spirit, he adopts her and makes her part of his family as a means of atoning for what his family did to her. But Biwa sees visions of the Taira clan meeting a bloody, violent end. Being a child and unable to do anything in her position, she can do naught but watch as the Heike's decisions and desire for power lead to their own downfall.
As much as I want to praise this anime up the wazoo, and believe me, you have no idea how much I want to, I can no longer deny its two biggest flaws. One is that the story Heike Monogatari tells is way too big to fit into a piddly eleven episodes. It's a big, sprawling epic that spans years and years, from the perspectives of a ton of different characters and showing how their actions directly or indirectly lead up to the great Genpei War. A story like this would be better told in, at the very least, 26 episodes, or at most, probably 39 or 52. Remember when anime that had that many episodes were the norm? And not just shounen anime? Because of how compressed the adaptation is, the pacing is very fast, leaving you with very little time to process all the big events that happen back to back to back, like a bunch of entitled soldiers burning a temple because the monks refused to let them use their bath, or Kiso no Yoshinaka razing the capital with his army for all it's worth. That being said, Heike Monogatari hardly leaves a moment for the audience to get bored, so there's always something going on to catch the viewer's interest. But that can also come with its own set of issues.
One of which is Heike Monogatari's second biggest flaw: This anime absolutely expects the viewer to be familiar with the original source material. It just throws a bunch of characters, names, and events at you in huge infodumps and exposition diatribes without much in the way of context, and doesn't even try to make an effort to allow the audience to get familiar with them, or show them in an organic manner. As someone who hasn't read the original novel, I was often very confused by the fact that Heike Monogatari seemed to randomly introduce new characters and situations in every episode at a breakneck pace, and even after several episodes, I could barely keep track of them. It doesn't help that many of the characters were hard to tell apart at times. Like, come on. I dare anyone to tell me they can tell Shigemori and Tokitada apart, especially since the former's left eye is such a subtle color difference from the other that it's still hard to tell who's who! And because of the anime's desire to just throw characters at you a mile a minute, any attempts to flesh them out come off as hollow because show's breakneck pacing doesn't allow itself to really delve into who they are as people, what makes them tick, why we should care about them, or even their states of mind as certain things happen. That being said, I don't want to be a Negative Nancy, and there are some characters who are very well fleshed out, like Biwa, Shigemori, Sukemori, and Tokuko. I found those four to be the most compelling, as we get to see them grow and change over the course of the series, even if I wish several scenes they starred in could have been presented with more focus and importance than they were. For example, Biwa's search for her mother and the end result of it is treated as mundane and an afterthought, and you'd think something like that would be hugely significant considering Biwa's, well, the main character. Koremori in particular was also a victim of this, as he could have been a more central character considering all the pressure he had on his shoulders, but the anime flip-flops between characters every other scene, making it hard to flesh them out in ways they deserve.
This is a more minor flaw, but sometimes the show has cases of pretty severe mood whiplash. For example, in episode 1, when Shigemori first discovers Biwa, she tearfully begs him to kill her...and in the very next scene, his maidservants are cartoonishly gawking at how poorly dressed she is, complete with cutesy music and cartoony expressions. Granted, this only happens twice, but they did feel pretty jarring to me. Of course, that being said, Heike Monogatari does have a lot to offer even with its flaws holding it down. For one, the animation is definitely unlike most anime and it's really a visual marvel. Naoko Yamada has always had a liking for live-action camera techniques, digital tools, and visual symbolism, light leaks, and so on, and a lot of the techniques she uses here really work, like depth of field, bloom lighting, and chromatic aberration. Every shot is packed with detail and used with purpose, from the sleek movement of the characters in motion to the impeccably watercolor/ukiyo-e style backgrounds conveying an almost otherworldly wonder about it. Pack that with a stellar voice cast and an eclectic but still mostly fitting soundtrack and you've got a recipe for greatness in terms of both sight and sound. So yeah, please don't think I hate Heike Monogatari, because I don't. Even though it's plagued by a lot of problems that prevent it from being considered a true masterpiece in every sense of the word, it still does have a lot to offer, and it's clear Yamada-san and her team put a lot of love, care, and effort into it. It didn't quite succeed, as it's short episode length leaves Heike Monogatari unable to live up to the huge story it wanted to tell, but as far as Yamada-san's first foray at Science Saru goes, I still think she hit a home run, and we still have ourselves a relatively good series here. Hell, if I was made to choose between this and the 800 bottom-of-the-barrel isekai that Japan likes to churn out, I'd pick Heike, no contest.
By the way, there is something else I'd like to mention as well: Just because an anime simply depicts problematic material, especially in the context of the setting and time period in which it takes place, that absolutely does not mean the show is promoting or encouraging it. Some dude on MAL gave Heike a low rating because they were under the impression that because it dared to show Tokuko's nine-year-old sister being married off to an adult man, a practice which, while definitely unacceptable in modern times, was considered commonplace back in the Heian era, that somehow the show was glamorizing or encouraging pedophilia. Uh...no. Heike Monogatari is absolutely NOT condoning pedophilia. If it was trying to do so, it would have made Moriko's marriage to an older man out to be a good thing, and there is nothing in the anime that does anything of the like. In fact, the anime subtly shows that Moriko's life turned out terrible when she was forced to marry. Seriously, people need to look more into the time period in which Heike Monogatari takes place. In the Heian era, women and children had absolutely no rights, agency, or autonomy. They had their lives dictated by others, whether it be family members or their husbands, and were forced to be submissive to those in power, even if women had positions of power, and any deviation from the norm would have either branded them as a pariah or gotten them killed, and even Heike Monogatari understands this. As someone who studied Japanese history in college, I can tell you for certain that Heike's depiction of both the time period and the questionable ethics behind marrying off underage girls for the sake of political alliances is fairly accurate. Besides, if that person thinks Heike is actively encouraging pedophilia or sexual assault, they ought to watch shows like Kodomo no Jikan, Daimidaler, every anime that sexualizes teenage girls (Which is about 80% of them, and Heike is not one of them), or pretty much every lolicon-centered hentai ever. Or that one movie called American Beauty, which is about a married, middle-aged man actively lusting over his teenaged daughter's best friend and has uncensored, underage nudity, and the movie outright encouraging his behavior. Make of that what you will.
With that, I think Heike Monogatari can be considered a flawed masterpiece. It really tries to be something good, and it is good, but because of how dense it is, I don't recommend this as baby's first grown-up anime. Not by a long shot.