Flower language in Heike Monogatari

“The color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline.”

-The Tale of the Heike

During her time at Kyoto Animation it was a truth universally acknowledged that any Naoko Yamada work must use flower language in some capacity. This remains true in her first work with Science Saru, an anime adaptation of the Japanese epic, Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike).

In its opening sequence, Yamada’s Heike Monogatari already uses flowers in a different manner than her previous works. The flowers of the sal tree are a more actualized physical and spiritual object in the world of Heike Monogatari than a concurrent visual language as seen in Yamada’s A Silent Voice, Liz and the Blue Bird, or even her one-off episode of Violet Evergarden.

The sal tree flowers (which I erroneously identified in the preview that aired a while ago as camellia flowers since Yamada had previously used them so frequently) appear normally. Then there’s a flash of a distorted red filter over them. This visual filter is also done to the butterfly that appears in the opening scenes as well.

The colors of the butterfly then immediately appear in the series in the form of Biwa and her father. They’re interrupted by the red of the kaburo who kill Biwa’s father. The red blood that splashes across Biwa’s face and her father’s death was mirrored by the red filter over the sal tree flowers and butterfly.

In Heike Monogatari, the sal tree is present in its opening lines, foreshadowing the fall of the Heike themselves. The sal tree is a sacred tree in Buddhism, symbolizing the impermanence of life due to how quickly the flowers bloom and fall. Heike Monogatari is an epic that follows the rise and eventual fall of the Heike, and these flowers frame their entire story along with the line, “The color of the sala flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline.” This line in and of itself paraphrases a line in the Buddhist Humane King Sutra: “The prosperous inevitably decline, the full inevitably empty.”

Yamada’s natural tendency to use flowers as a secondary visual language is also present in the first episode of Heike Monogatari. Above are red camellia flowers, shown briefly as Shigemori is recalling a story of Taira no Tadamori and how, despite being a warrior, he was accepted in the palace and intimidated naysayers with a silver-lined bamboo sword. Red camellia flowers were popular among Japanese nobility, especially during the Edo period, and additionally in Japanese hanakotoba mean dying with grace or being in love. The former meaning applies to warriors in particular, symbolizing a noble death. Some say it’s because of the way the flowers “behead themselves” as they fall to the ground. Red camellias appear again several times in the episode, often covered with snow or as decorations inside the home.

White daffodils or narcissus appear when Biwa meets Shigemori for the first time and Shigemori sees what his family did to her father. Generally daffodils are seen as a symbol of renewal because of how they’re one of the first flowers to grow in spring while there’s still snow on the ground, a sign that spring is coming. In Japan, daffodils are known as “friends of the snow” along with other flowers like camellias and plum blossoms, heralding spring’s arrival. Above all else, daffodils in Japanese hanakotoba mean respect, which is an interesting flower to place between Biwa and Shigemori during their first meeting.

Later, Biwa and Koremori sit beneath the cherry blossoms together. It serves as a transition of time from Biwa’s arrival and the next scene where Biwa and Shigemori sit and watch the fireflies at night, presumably in summer. Cherry blossoms, like the sal tree blossoms, represent the transience and impermanent nature of life for a similar reason: they bloom quickly, are beautiful, and die quickly.

4 comments

  1. Interesting. This makes the opening sequence much more comprehensible. On a different, although relevant note, the colours on the butterfly’s wings are also mirrored in several kanji’s that appear in the OP. All the ten’s I suppose, for example, the ten’s in: 平 in 平家物語, 高 in 高野文子 and perhaps luckily, 尚 in 山田尚子. Why the ten’s? I don’t know, but maybe because the turquoise blue flicks on the wings look like ten’s?

    btw, using distorted colour filters is new for a Science Saru production, isn’t it?

    On a totally different note, thanks to this post I finally understand the relationship between the title and contents of Naomi Kawase’s Sharasojyu.

  2. Hello.
    I was searching for “Flower language in Heike Monogatari” and I’m so glad I found your blog. I’m writing a thread about Heike Monogatari on my twitter and would love to translate some parts about the flowers to Arabic and use it in my thread, is it ok to do that? of course I’ll credit you.
    Thank you

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