The Tale of the Heike is the classic of medieval samurai fiction--the romance of the warrior, which in Japanese fiction comes after the romance of the lover, instead of before as in Western literature.   The great classic of the earlier Heian Period (794-1185) was The Tale of Genji. Genji is definitely a courtly lover, not a battlefield warrior, and he is the ideal of the period, as imagined by a sophisticated woman at home in te world of that court.  The heroes (and villains) of the Tale of the Heike are battlefield warriors, however, and this is the period, the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), when the mystique of the samurai develops.  Kamo no Chomei (1153-1216) comes early in this period, and presents the chaos that had descended on Heian-Kyo in My Ten-Foot Hut (that I presented last month), a chaos that lead him to reject that world.  And there are important developments in Buddhist thought and the Noh drama in the period,  but it is dominated by Civil War and the development of the warrior's code.
    The story told in the 800 pages of the book happens in 20 years which would be relatively early in Chomei's lifetime, but he tells nothing of that story himself.  It is essentially the story of a fall from political power provoked by pride, the pride of the Taira clan of warriors (the Heike) faced with the rise of the Minamoto clan (the Genji), whom the Taira had defeated in the 1160s.  They had also ousted the Fujiwara family from the power at court it had held during most of the Heian Period.  But the great battles come in five years (1180-85), from the rise of the Minamoto clan in 1180 to their crushing defeat of the Taira in 1185, and these then become as well known in Japanese history as our great Civil War battles are to us.
    The tale divides roughly into three parts.  The central figure of the first part is Taira no Kiyomori--a great villain. "Arrogant, evil, and ruthless, he is above all so consumed by the fires of hatred for the Minamoto that he dies in agony, his feverish body beyond all cooling, even when he is immersed in water."  The main figures of the second and third parts are the Minamoto generals, Minamoto no Yoshinaka, then, after his death, the great samurai warrior, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a military genius wrongly suspected of treachery by his elder brother, Minamoto no Yoritomo, the more astute politician.
    The Tale has an epic sweep in being centered on the great battles that resolve this conflict, the brave deeds of warriors, and the code of bushido, prizing strict loyalty to the lord and honor over life that we have since come to see as the samurai code.  But there are subordinate episodes involving love stories that hark back to Heian literature, and the whole is permeated by  Buddhist themes stressing that all human experience is ephemeral and illusory, that nothing persists except faith in the Buddha.
    One thing that gives the work a link to the epic tradition, but also a stong link to these Buddhist themes is that it was developed by a tradition of Biwa Hoshi, blind priests who traveled the country reciting this and other works to the accompaniment of the lute.  They used no fixed text but recreated the story each time as chanters using oral formulae, many passages in the 7-5 syllable rhythm of classical poetry, which has suggestions of the way the Homeric epics were passed on even to Plato's time.  The result is that surviving texts vary greatly from one another.
    In any case, the work has influenced later writers, and values, greatly.  It provided material for many Noh plays, and informed the general samurai mystique of later ages, unto World War II.