Fear of the Future in The Heike Story

Have you ever been afraid of the future? Have you ever looked at the horizon and worried about what lay ahead, hidden just beyond sight? The hardships to come, the opposition you’ll face, or perhaps even worse, the things that will never be, as the things that are missing from your life continue to elude you forever. The future can be frightening as much for what it doesn’t hold as for what it does.

Biwa, the young protagonist of The Heike Story, is afraid of the future. One quiet winter’s night, as the soft flakes of snow gentle their way down from unseen clouds above, Shigemori asks her about it. About what frightens her. And she tells him, the childish smile over the snow bunny in her hands fading. The bunny crumbles as her hands stiffen.

The orphaned minstrel girl has good reason to be afraid of the future. The time in which she lives, at the tail end of decadent Heian period, is riddled with disparity, conflict and bloody war. The Heike tyrant, Kiyomori, is pitting his warrior clan against the Imperial Fujiwara family and their main supporters, the Genji, intent on capturing the court and turning the Emperor into a Heike puppet. Meanwhile, rebellion is stirring the land, as Heike foot soldiers terrorize villagers and peasants, former allies switch sides, and even monks, sworn not to take a life, arm themselves for battle. No one could be blamed for imagining the worst. 

But Biwa’s fear of the future springs from more specific, personal reasons: she can actually see the future. She doesn’t need to imagine the coming horror of the battlefields—she can see it. Every time she looks at the world through her special eye, she witnesses the death, suffering and destruction to come. Most tragically, she sees it over and over again when she looks at her beloved friend Tokuko, who is destined to be stolen away from Biwa by an angry sea. 

With such devastating foreknowledge, it is understandable why Biwa is afraid of the future.

And yet.

This begins to change when she meets Gio, a shirabyoshi dancer like Biwa’s mother, who disappeared when Biwa was too young even to walk or learn her own name. As the girl shares a delightful tea with the dancer and Tokuko, she learns the phrases “one day,” and “next time”—concepts that evoke a vision of the future she’s never encountered before, namely, a future that could hold something pleasant, something to look forward to. One day, the next time she sees Gio, they will chat again about the life of a shirabyoshi and share tasty treats and tidbits of rumor about what happened to Biwa’s mother, whether she might still be alive somewhere. Biwa’s vision of what the future can entail begins to shift, ever so slightly.

After learning her new vocab.

It transpires that Biwa is only able to see Gio one more time, after the young woman has withdrawn from the world to become a Buddhist nun. As Biwa walks home through the bamboo forest after their visit, she encounters a stranger whom she turns to watch with her special eye. And what she sees quickens the new perspective on the future that is taking root in her heart: instead of strife and violence, Biwa sees a tale of reconciliation and peace unfold as the stranger, Gio’s rival Hotoke, makes amends and joins Gio in a life of contemplation. “Good things happen too!” she tells Shigemori excitedly. “Both Hotoke-Gozen and Gio’s faces were serene.” There can be hope in the future.

The Israelites too lived through a time much like the end of the Heian period and suffered a fate like that of the Heike, only the survivors were taken away into captivity in Babylon rather than fleeing to the Iya Valley. Like Biwa, they had good reason to despair of the future: Jerusalem had collapsed, the temple was destroyed, their entire way of life was upended, and they found themselves an orphaned people in a foreign land. It was a very low point. And it was at this moment that God spoke to them through the prophet Jeremiah one of the most well-known promises of the Bible:

I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Jeremiah 29:11

What we often forget though, is that this was the culmination of a longer passage where God spoke not about their future, but about their present situation. And rather than dwelling on the extent of the devastation or the reasons for it (namely, their unfaithfulness), he redefines it and paints a very different picture of what it could mean and become: he tells them to embrace life in Babylon. 

God gives them some pretty startling instructions: settle into this new land, building houses and planting gardens; marry and have children and grandchildren; contribute to your adoptive city, to Babylon, doing your bit to see it prosper, including praying for and blessing it. At the moment when life seemed to have ended and the future of the Israelites was ripped away from them, God told them to give their all to today, to the here and now, even though “here” was an enemy city, and “now” was the aftermath of the most devastating event in recent history. 

Gio and Biwa

And his rationale for this counterintuitive response to crisis and trauma? He has plans for them, good ones, to give them a future with hope. In other words, God has not been caught off guard by the Babylonian exile; he still knows his plans for them—they’re still valid. What’s more, the Israelites still have a future, it’s not been stolen from them or their children; all this is going somewhere purposeful. And if they can grab hold of these truths, then hope will come and unseat despair. Hope will redefine for them how they see their current situation and what they perceive as being possible in it. God calls them to listen to his definition of their future, rather than the one that death, defeat and destruction would dictate to them. He is showing them how to break free from death.

This is exactly the trap that Biwa has been caught in her whole life. Her fear of the future is not actually rooted in the visions she sees. It stems instead from her experience of life up to this point: her mother’s abandonment and her father’s execution (having taken her place beneath the disgruntled Heike soldier’s blade), and the complicated emotions that come when a child feels complicit in their own orphanhood.

It is through this lens that Biwa interprets her visions. She sees Tokuko’s death in them because that is what she has known throughout her life: her loved ones leaving her and she, helpless to do a thing.

Biwa’s recurring vision of a drowning Tokuko

A seed of change is planted when Biwa learns that the future can be good too. This seed takes a very long time to take root and grow to fruition though, much as it often does for us in real life. In the meantime, Biwa avoids her visions of the future as much as possible.

A turning point comes when Biwa decides to seek out her mother, effectively going in search of a future that is different from the one that she’s always seen for herself—of lifelong orphanhood and an identity defined by abandonment. When she meets her mother, Biwa chooses to forgive, and in so doing begins to build a future for herself that is grounded in reconciliation like Gio’s and like Tokuko’s, and like God’s picture for the Babylonian exiles.

But it is once Biwa commits to returning to the Heike and making a life among them, praying for them even though they killed her father, that she truly grabs hold of the possibility, nay, the certainty that the future is good. It is after this final, bold step that Biwa finds hope.

And this hope transforms how she interprets her visions of Tokuko’s fate.

When her friend seeks to drown herself, effectively fulfilling her “destiny” of a watery grave, Biwa suddenly understands that this is not at all Tokuko’s fate, but that her friend is instead meant to live. She understands that rather than the victory of death, her visions had been showing her how to rescue Tokuko: Biwa’s own hand had been there in the visions all along, reaching out to her friend.

Biwa catches hold of Tokuko’s hand and changes the future as she’s understood it until now.

She wouldn’t have recognized it though, had she not exchanged her fear of the future for hope, had she not listened to Gio and Tokuko and learned that the future can be good. Had she not learned to see the muddy battlefield as a place to plant a garden where flowers could bloom.

Lately, our world has been going through a period as devastating, disruptive, and crisis-riddled as anything the Heike or Israelites witnessed. Maybe it’s affecting you significantly, or maybe less so. Maybe you are experiencing your own personal battles, defeats, and disappointments that would tempt you to despair of the future and question what God is doing, or not doing.

If that’s the case, then here, this is me reaching out to grab your hand and let you know that you are destined for life, for hope, for a future full of good plans that come to fruition because they are crafted by the greatest planner of all.

And this is me, grabbing hold of your hand as it reaches out to me, nodding with conviction as you remind me of the same.

A good future, full of hope, is about to unfold…

The Heike Story can be streamed on Funimation. And maybe soon on Crunchyroll…

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