I’ve written five books in the Tales of the Otori series. It started as a trilogy (Across the Nightingale Floor, Grass for his Pillow and Brilliance of the Moon) but I realised I had more to say about the characters and have written one book (Heaven’s Net is Wide) that ends where Across the Nightingale Floor begins, telling Shigeru’s story from the age of twelve, and one (The Harsh Cry of the Heron) that covers events that take place about fourteen years after the end of Brilliance of the Moon. The series spans thirty five years of the main character Takeo’s life.
Peace comes at the price of bloodshed.
This is part of a prophecy made in Grass For His Pillow. It goes on:
Five battles will buy you peace, four to win and one to lose.
The tension in my work is always between humans’ drive to power and their desire for peace.
My hero, Takeo, is born into a peaceful non-violent sect who follow the teaching that it is forbidden to take life, your own or any one else’s. But when his family is massacred and his village destroyed by a warlord, Takeo’s immediate instinct is for revenge. He is adopted into the warrior class by Shigeru and has to learn how to kill both with the sword and with the secret weapons of the assassin. His ancestry and his inherited talents make him gifted at both these roles but his upbringing has instilled in him an unquenchable belief in the precious nature of human life and a desire to protect others.
The five books of the Tales of the Otori follow his life and look at this struggle. The books are set in an imaginary feudal society in a state of violent upheaval where on the surface the noble code of the warrior seems to be the dominant organising power but where in reality this code of honour masks the lust for power and the greed of the warrior class, the drive to conquer and dominate, which leads to endless strife among them, frequently to all out war. As Takeo says in Grass For His Pillow Would it ever be possible to stop the clans from fighting? The whole warrior class fought; it was what they were bred and trained and lived for.
The Weasel’s Dance
This is how Takeo’s closest friend, Makoto, the warrior monk, speaks, at the end of Brilliance of the Moon, of the dilemma of war and peace:
I’ve fought and killed alongside you and I would do it gladly all over again. Except that it solves nothing in the end. Like the weasel’s dance, the cycle of violence goes on and on.
So the major themes of the books are: can peace be achieved through war and can the cycle of violence be brought to an end?
There are many elements that led me to write this work. I’m going to look at some of them under the following headings: Tragedy, Warfare, Revenge, Feudalism, Peace, Spirituality, Fantasy and Magic.
I have always been moved by epic tragedy: Greek classical drama, Homer and Virgil, Shakespeare and Racine, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi as well as by the themes of no, bunraku and kabuki.In Japanese culture and history I like the clans and the banners, the codes, the physical courage, the honour, the huge emotions of passion, hatred and revenge. I am fascinated by the hold these myths have on young men and the repeated need, generation after generation, to pit oneself against the ancient heroes and see if one matches up. I’ve always been attracted to the Japanese aesthetic, the stylisation of violence, the juxtaposition of cruelty and beauty, the use of stillness and asymmetry, the acceptance of failure, the awareness of the essential sadness of things (mononoaware) and the fleeting nature of existence.
I am equally fascinated and repelled by warfare. If humans hate it as much as we say we do why does it continue, like the weasel’s dance? Who is it out there that secretly loves war and ensures that it goes on and on? Is it, as Sugita Hiroshi, one of the main characters in The Harsh Cry of the Heron, says, the nature of our society? We fight until we tire of war and after a few years we tire of peace and so we fight again.
If weapons are developed sooner or later they will be used. If standing armies are maintained sooner or later they will find someone to go to war against. Do different perceptions of reality, different beliefs and the scarcity of resources mean that conflict is inevitable? When is it right to go to war, if ever? And in the end is war good for anything? Its outcomes are unpredictable and unexpected. The immediate effects of war are terrible in human cost, especially for civilians, women and children. Yet, the merciless war in the Pacific swept away colonialism and brought about a peaceful and prosperous society in Japan. We talk of the sacrifice made by soldiers and we do believe in some way that they died for us: in some way their death brought us closer to a better world.
Much of the first four books is concerned with the quest for revenge. Revenge is a deep human instinct, tied to our need for justice. In conditions of anarchy or where the law is corrupt humans will always seek to take revenge into their own hands. At the end of Brilliance of the Moon Takeo realises he must reserve violence to himself, as must all nation states, within a social structure that can impose law and order on an entire country. Justice must supplant the need for revenge.
I am interested in feudalism as one of the basic ways humans organise their societies. We see it flourishing all over the world, just as we see warrior states emerging everywhere. Dynasties, princes and heirs govern much of the corporate and political worlds. (The Bush family, the Kennedy family, the Murdochs ,the Packers) Where the rule of law is weakened dominant men emerge. They seem to offer security and certainty and the weak are attracted to them. It is a natural animal tendency to follow the leader. As Frans de Waal observes, the drive to power and status is ingrained in primates: we try to pretend we don’t share in it but we are all influenced by it every day.
And I am deeply interested in the opposite to all this – in ways of peace and non-violence. I am writing this on September 21st: the day of Peace One Day. At the end of Brilliance of the Moon, Makoto gives up the way of the sword to seek a way of peace. In The Harsh Cry of the Heron this has evolved into The Way of the Houou, a movement that is based on the balance of the masculine and the feminine, the yin/yang of nature, and is non-violent. It seems to me that the more masculine a society the more likely it is to go to war and that societies where women are repressed and held in contempt have a greater tendency to violence. So I am equally interested in the role women play in the world of the Otori, in Kaede, Shizuka, and Kaede’s daughter, Shigeko. I want to look at love and sex, how these hold a balance in the working out of history and how love can be stronger than death.
I’m writing about a mediaeval period, so everyone lives in a society that is both religious and superstitious, and that takes the existence of the spiritual world as a given. Yet Takeo’s journey is one that must transcend the constraints and beliefs of any one sect. As he realises in Brilliance of the Moon, he must believe in nothing so others are free to believe what they want. The spiritual world is where my characters find strength and inspiration to continue in their struggle. The centre of the Three Countries, physical and spiritual, is the temple at Terayama, and it is here that the final scene takes place at the end of The Harsh Cry of the Heron.
In Across the Nightingale Floor Matsuda Shingen, who is teacher to both Shigeru and Takeo, has this conversation with Takeo:
Come back to us when all this is over. There will always be a place for you here.
Will it ever be over? I replied.
Everything that has a beginning has an ending, he said.
Fantasy and Magic
In Tales of the Otori the Tribe have gifts that seem like magic: Takeo’s supernaturally acute hearing, the ability to go invisible and to split one’s image – the second self. I think all human beings have resources that they don’t realise they possess until they are called on in some ordeal or test. Everyone’s life is made up of struggle, defeat, suffering, grief, as well as joys and triumphs: fantasy reflects this on a large, a heroic scale. When I write I am always aware of the tension between the “happy ending” I desire for my characters, and the realistic ending that their acts, their lives, their fate, demand. Every act sets a whole train of events into motion, every mistake must sooner or later be paid for: Heaven’s net is wide but its mesh is fine. This Japanese proverb from which I take the title of the first book expresses a recurring theme throughout the Tales of the Otori.
The world of the departed is also important to me. The spirits of the dead both haunt and inspire the living. Takeo’s life is lived according to the demands of the dead; he is constantly reminded of those who have died and deeply regrets those actions of his that caused or contributed to their deaths. I believe we owe a great debt to our ancestors whose lives resulted in our birth and our life.
Between the Darkness and the Light
At the end of Across the Nightingale Floor Takeo reflects,
It would always be like this, summer after summer, winter after winter, the moon sinking towards the west, giving the night back to the stars, and they, in an hour or two, surrendering it to the brightness of the sun. The sun would pass above the mountain, pulling the shadows of the cedars after it, until it descended below the rim of the hills. So the world went and humankind lived on it as best they could, between the darkness and the light.
The final book of Tales of the Otori deals with the many ways that Takeo tries to avoid war. He knows that he may not succeed, but as the Dalai Lama says, “Nothing is for just one generation”. We struggle in the hope that the world be a slightly better place because we lived in it, that our children and their children will benefit from the life we lived. We will always walk between the darkness and the light, both are part of the universe and part of our nature.