Let me be blunt, “The Taiheiki” isn’t a book you pick up to read a gripping story. While it’s considered a work of fiction, it reads like a history. In some sense, it is a history. It does follow the broad brush strokes of the events in Japan in the early 14th century. However, there are way too many characters to keep track of, or to remember who is on the side of whom, or even to know whether a given individual is worth remembering or whether they’ll soon die an ignominious death. If you don’t believe me, here are the words of the book’s translator and editor, “In short, the ‘gunki monogatari’ [the war tales of which ‘The Taiheiki’ is one] are not great literature. But the best of them are worth reading.”
I agree with McCullough’s point about these books (and this one in particular) being worth reading, but I would add an “if.” “The Taiheiki” is worth reading, if you have an interest in medieval Japan, samurai, or civil war life. The time period in question was fascinating, and it was characterized by war and intrigue. The Hōjō clan was ousted. (They were the military clan that administered the government.) A compromise had been in effect in which the mantle of Emperor was to be alternated between two opposing lines. However, an ambitious Emperor Go-Daigo refused to relinquish the title, and this led to a war between the courts. It’s a story of both warriors of legendary loyalty (most famously, Kusunoki Masashige) and those of shifting loyalties.
While the book is too fractured to form a clear and interesting story overall, that doesn’t mean it isn’t filled with intriguing episodes of battles, espionage, siege warfare, and even the occasional ghost or goblin story. There are many interesting individuals that are dealt with in sufficient detail to make them intriguing—the aforementioned Kusunoki Masashige stands out among them. The book offers insight into the medieval Japanese mind and to some degree the modern mind as well. There are discussions of philosophy and strategy worked into the narrative that help one to understand from whence the individuals were coming.
The book has a few features that help non-expert readers. The first is an extensive introduction written by Dr. McCullough that serves to provide background for the book and the era in which it took place. The second is frequent footnoting. There are also several plates of artworks and photos interspersed throughout the book. These help the reader visualize the environs and how these individuals would have looked.
If you have an interest in medieval Japan, in samurai, in ninja, or even in pre-modern war generally, I’d recommend this book. (If you’re looking for a gripping tale of intrigue set in 14th century Japan, not so much.)
The defining characteristic of a warrior isn’t the ability to fight. Thugs and mercenaries fight. It’s subordinating one’s most base instinct to survive to virtuous behavior. It’s not being ruled by fear, anger, or pride, but consciously opting to do the right thing.