Fall 2021’s Most Underrated Anime Series Is Heike Monogatari
Heike Monogatari will probably never become a classic in the eyes of most anime viewers. However, that doesn’t make the show less beautiful.
Warning: the following contains spoilers for Heike Monogatari, available to stream on Funimation.
As the fall 2021 anime season draws to a close, some anime titles have already finished airing, including the almost criminally underrated Heike Monogatari (Heike’s story). Beginning its run in September 2021 and airing its final episode in late November — about a month earlier than most other anime shows in the fall 2021 season — the series is unique for a number of reasons.
Unfortunately, its uniqueness is probably what contributes to Heike Monogatari being so under-supervised in the first place. The series has a distinct look and feel that easily sets it apart from most other anime titles, both currently airing and completed. However, that also means it sits just outside of what can be considered mainstream, despite being produced by Science Saru (Ping Pong Animation, Don’t Touch Eizouken!) and directed by former Kyoto Animation member Naoko Yamada (K-On!, Ring! Euphonium, A silent voice).
A historical anime Heike Monogatari is based on the stories of the struggle for dominance of Japan at the end of the Heian period between two clans: the Taira/Heike and the Minamoto. Although the majority of the main characters are based on real historical figures, the story is told through the eyes of the fictional Biwa – an orphan lute player who was gifted with the ability to see the future with one of their eyes. Welcomed by Taira no Shigemori, she becomes the narrator of the fall of the clan.
Heike Monogatari may have already been at a great disadvantage for two reasons. The first is that, as mentioned earlier, the series began airing nearly a full month earlier than most other shows in the fall 2021 season; it appeared too late to be classified as a summer anime, but edged out its fall anime peers. Fans who are used to looking for what to watch at the start or end of a given season might therefore have missed the premiere entirely, unknowingly excluding it from their potential weekly lineup.
The second major reason is that, as a historical anime, Heike Monogatari probably never would have achieved the same level of notoriety and popularity as, say, a shounen action piece, or even garnered the same kind of attention as some of the non-shounen titles released in the same season (e.g. , the game based on Takt Op. destiny or PA Works anime-original Aquatope on White Sand). Perhaps in part because the subject matter may be considered by many viewers to be somewhat dry, historical shows simply don’t tend to do as well as their action, adventure, romance or comedy counterparts. comedy.
Also, even as a historical anime, Heike Monogatari bucks the trend of what is generally doing well in terms of viewership. Historical shows that have attracted larger audiences are often set during the Edo or Meiji period — Rurouni Kenshin, Gintama, Samurai Champloo Where Kurogane Peacemaker, to name just a few examples. Conversely, titles set in the Heian period (794-1185) are far fewer and more distant, and generally nowhere near as widely watched; Otogi Zoshi, Shōnen Onmyouji, Genji Monogatari Sennenki and Chouyaku Hyakuninisshu: Uta Koi all pass well under the radar of most audiences.
Nevertheless, it would be a disservice to write off Heike Monogatari as dull or dreary. Even for those who know nothing at all about classical Japanese history (or who don’t want to look up the story on Wikipedia), the loss of the Taira clan is clearly inevitable; however, it is this unfolding Shakespearean tragedy that makes the show so compelling. Like watching an impending sinking in slow motion, the audience, with Biwa, becomes witness to a civil war that literally established Japan’s national colors: the blood red of the Taira banners and the white of the Minamoto.
The drama of the series is further heightened by its well-balanced characters. Very few actors are seen as downright bad or paragons of morality – they’re just people, each with their own strengths and flaws. Some take an active role in orchestrating the Taira’s unfortunate events, while others – especially the female characters – are sadly caught in the tide.
Stylistically, Heike Monogatari is also a departure from the mainstream, distinguished by its fine, subtle lines and uniform yet vivid color palette. With the distinctive character designs, the artwork is somewhat reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints, but with a contemporary twist thanks to its fluid movement and sharp camerawork. Viewers might well remember Science Saru’s Masaaki Yuasa, whose trademark visual style is certainly present in the show even though Yuasa himself had no direct involvement in its creation.
While he may have failed to make waves this season when it comes to overall popularity, Heike Monogatari is more than worth a look, especially for fans looking for something a little different from the norm. What the series lacks in mass recognition, it more than makes up for in its tragic beauty.
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