Taira no Atsumori

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Atsumori in a woodblock printed book illustration by Kikuchi Yōsai.
In this Japanese name, the family name is "Taira".

Taira no Atsumori (平 敦盛?) (1169–1184) was a samurai famous for his early death in single combat. At the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani, Atsumori engaged Kumagai Naozane, an ally of the Minamoto, and was killed. Kumagai had a son the same age as Atsumori. Kumagai's great remorse as told in the tale, coupled with his taking of priestly vows, caused this otherwise unremarkable event to become well known for its tragedy.

The Death of Atsumori as told in the Tales of the Heike[edit]

The legend of Atsumori's death, as told in The Tales of the Heike, goes as follows. The Heike were scattered by Yoshitsune's attack from the Ichi-no-Tani cliff. Kumagai no Jirō Naozane, while scanning the beach for fleeing soldiers, spotted the young Atsumori swimming towards the fleeing vessels. Kumagai beckons Atsumori with his fan, taunting Atsumori saying, “I see that you are a Commander-in-Chief. It is dishonorable to show your back to an enemy. Return!” (316, t. McCullough). The two grappled on the beach, but Kumagai was too powerful. Kumagai knocks off Atsumori's helmet to deliver the finishing blow, only to be struck by the beauty of the young noble. Atsumori was “sixteen or seventeen years old, with a lightly powdered face and blackened teeth—a boy just the age of Naozane's own son...” (317, t. McCullough).

Kumagai, wishing to spare the boy, asks for Atsumori's name, but the child refuses. Atsumori simply says that he is famous enough that Kumagai's superiors will recognize his head when it is time to assign rewards. At that moment, other Minamoto warriors arrived at the scene, and Kumagai knows that if he doesn't kill Atsumori, the other warriors surely will. Kumagai reasons that it is better if he is the one to kill Atsumori, because he can offer prayers on his behalf for the afterlife. Crying, Kumagai beheads the boy. Searching the body for something to wrap the head in, he came across a bag containing a flute. He realized that Atsumori must have been one of the soldiers playing music before the battle and thought, “There are tens of thousands of riders in our eastern armies, but I am sure none of them has brought a flute to the battlefield. Those court nobles are refined men!” (317, t. McCullough).

It is said that the beheading of Atsumori is what led Kumagai to take priestly vows and become a Buddhist monk.

Atsumori in other works[edit]

The Atsumori narrative became the subject of many spin-offs, including:

  • The Noh play, Atsumori, which follows Kumagai, now known as the Buddhist priest Renshō, as he speaks with and prays for the lost soul of Atsumori.
  • The Bunraku puppet play, later adapted for Kabuki, Ichinotani Futaba Gunki
  • A Narrative: Atsumori, which expands upon the Tales of the Heike version and includes a section where Kumagai personally returns the body of Atsumori to the Minamoto.
  • Little Atsumori, the tale of the resulting plight of Atsumori's wife and his yet unborn son.
  • The lesser-known Kabuki play Sakigake Genpei Tsutsuji (otherwise called Ogiya Kumagai, or Suma no Miyako Genpei Tsutsuji), where Atsumori hides his identity by dressing up as the girl Kohagi and working in a fan shop.
  • Atsumori, as a Kami, is a character in Wen Spencer's modern fantasy novel Eight Million Gods.