Minamoto no Yoshitsune

Historical Periods in Japan

  Heian              794 - 1192
  Kamakura          1192 - 1336
  Muromachi         1336 - 1573
  Azura-Muromachi   1568 - 1600
  Tokugawa          1600 - 1868
  Meiji             1868 - 1912

Yoshitsune lived at the very end of the Heian period; his brother's ascendancy to Shogun marked the beginning of the Kamakura period.

It was in the Muromachi period that much of the Yoshitsune literature was written:

'Gunki monogatari' ('war tales')
are stories based on real episodes from Japanese history. However, they are often modified significantly for dramatic purposes. Although early examples, such as the 'Heiki Monogatari', portray Yoshitsune as an active warrior, the later tales emphasize his tragic nature and cultural sophistication. 'Gikeiki' is a collection of stories about the youth and fugitive years of Yoshitsune, written in Muromachi circa 1400

Noh dramas
combine music and singing and dancing to tell a story. 14 of the 240 Noh dramas in the current repertoire, such as 'Ataka' and 'Funa Benkei', tell stories about Yoshitsune and his followers. Most Noh plays were written in the Muromachi period.

'Kouwaka no mai' dances
told stories with a combination of music and motion, similar perhaps to the Noh dramas. They flourished in the late Muromachi and early Tokugawa periods, but disappeared before the Meiji restoration. 14 of the 44 surviving texts are based on Yoshitsune.

'Otogi zoushi' and 'chusei shousetsu'
are illustrated stories, written anonymously and aimed at a juvenile market. Most were written in the Muromachi and early Edo periods. There are 16 'otogi zoushi' about heroes, and Yoshitsune appears in 8 of them.

Even though in real life, Yoshitsune became famous through his genius in battle, in Japanese literature, he appears as a very different person. Authors of the Muromachi period looked back to the Heian times for inspiration. Their ideal men are not rough warriors striding across the battlefield, but sensitive poets who mourn the transience of life. In most of the Japanese literature, Yoshitsune does things like

It is his surrounding characters -- Benkei the monk, Shizuka his mistress -- who carry the action. For example,

  1. In the Noh play 'Funa Benkei', Yoshitsune and his party are crossing the sea in a boat when the angry spirit of Taira no Tomomori appears. Tomomori was one of the leaders of the Taira clan whom Yoshitsune's army defeated years earlier. Tomomori's spirit tries to drag Yoshitsune to the bottom of the sea. Benkei saves Yoshitsune by praying to the Buddhist deities.
  2. In the Noh play 'Ataka', Yoshitsune and his followers, fleeing the forces of his brother, are stopped at a checkpoint. Benkei does all talking while Yoshitsune is disguised as a baggage carrier. The officer of the barrier grows suspicious of them, so Benkei beats Yoshitsune to prove that the boy is nothing but a lowly servant.

Apparently, many Japanese people in the past -- and perhaps today? -- admire tragic figures: men and women who suffer an unhappy fate, who are aware of their destiny yet powerless to change it. The pathos of these figures has a special term in Japanese: mono no aware. Yoshitsune, due to his noble birth quick rise to fame, long flight from the hostile forces and early death, provides a perfect frame into which Japanese authors can place their own invented stories.