What do you mean “No, I’m not?”
What?! No, seriously, dude. It’s awesome!
Yes, it is! There’s the glamour and grace of the imperial court contrasted with the poverty of the commoners, the brutality of the emerging samurai class, and the decadence and decay of Heian-Kyo itself. The capital is practically a “points of light” setting in miniature; the imperial palace and the eastern half of the city flourish, but the western half of this same, small city is full of abandoned mansions haunted by bandits, fallen nobles, and worse. Have you even read “Rashōmon?”
Fine, you haven’t read it. Whatever, dude…
So you’re thinking about running a game set in Heian Japan and you have not spent half your life enamored with Japanese culture – or perhaps you’re going to be running such a game for a bunch of players who have not spent half their lives watching anime and reading Japanese ghost stories – or perhaps both. What do you do?
You watch some movies.
While I don’t quite subscribe to Jack Shear’s Edgar Allan Poe-derived “setting as short story” theory, I do believe in leveraging fiction as an entry point to game settings. I rave about the Forgotten Realms gray box, but my first introduction to the Realms was the novel Streams of Silver. The King is Dead – my revolutionary-era Gothic setting – relies heavily on “Hollywood History” to set the stage. Thankfully, the Heian period has been pretty popular in Japanese pop culture over the last couple of decades, and there’s some great movies you can use to paint the scene.
Onmyōji (陰陽師) (2001)
If you can watch only one movie on this list, watch this. Sure, some purists and snobs will insist on watching a film version of The Tale of Genji (源氏物語, Genji monogatari?), but ask yourself “Are my players going to want to swan about languorously seducing noblewomen, or are they going to want to fight monsters?”
(I must admit that if the player was me, then the answer would be “seducing noblewomen.”)
Onmyōji is based on a series of novels and their manga adaptations (both of which I would pay big bucks to see translated into English) revolving around the historical figure Abe no Seimei (b. 921 – d. 1005). Seimei was – like Elizabeth I’s astrologer, John Dee – an honest-to-goodness real-life dude who was believed to be a wizard by his contemporaries; however, Abe no Seimei’s place in Japanese pop culture is closer to Merlin, being regarded as the premier magician (or “onmyōji”) of his land. He appears frequently in anime and manga, including such disparate titles as Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi and Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan.
Onmyōji is a beautiful, weird movie. The androgynously handsome actor Nomura Mansai plays Seimei with an impish humor that makes the onmyōji both approachable and fey, Ito Hideaki brings a likeable earnestness to Seimei’s bromantic comic relief Minamoto no Hiromasa, and Sanada Hiroyuki (seen stateside in such films as The Last Samurai and The Wolverine) is his typically awesome, intense self as a villainous rival wizard. The production design was by Amano Yoshitaka, the artist whose ethereal work adorns Vampire Hunter D novels and Final Fantasy posters, supported by a relatively lavish budget that brings Heian-Kyo’s grandeur to life. The plot presents a perfect example of the political maneuvering that marked the age while also remaining relatively simple (what with all of the ghosts and monsters and spell-slinging).
In other words, it is the perfect introduction to the Heian period for a typical group of gamers. There’s also an equally-enjoyable sequel, but you’re going to want different viewpoints in order to get a more panoramic view of the Heian era. Thankfully, my next recommendation flips Onmyōji on its head.
My second-highest recommendation is the first half of an anime series by Production I.G. (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, the animated bit in Kill Bill). I say the first half because the series is split into two different eras; the first thirteen episodes are set in the Heian period while the second half is about the same characters reincarnated into modern Tokyo. Telling a story of Minamoto no Raikō (more or less the Heian era’s answer to King Arthur, except not a king – and in this case replaced by his kid sister) and
his her heroic companions, Otogi Zoshi’s “Heian
Chapter” presents the warrior (and rogue) side of the period amidst the kind of
artifact-retrieving quest familiar to tabletop gamers.
Otogi Zoshi is worth watching for the opening theme – 漸 ZEN by techno band ATTACK HAUS – alone, but that doesn’t help much with introducing players to the Heian era. What does help is how the series shows the uneven relations between the samurai class and their noble masters, how it contrasts the placidity of Heian-Kyo with the poverty and violence of the countryside, and how the series directly subverts Onmyōji by turning Abe no Seimei into the villain.
Otogi Zoshi “Heian Chapter” is far from perfect; the plotting is occasionally muddy and the animation is sometimes clumsy. As a thirteen episode series, it’s a much bigger time-sink than Onmyōji, but Production I.G. also created a 45 minute OVA (original video animation) called Kai Doh Maru (怪童丸, Kaidōmaru) that covers much of the same ground. (In fact, I highly suspect Kai Doh Maru was produced as a proof of concept for Otogi Zoshi.)
Kai Doh Maru is about different versions of the same characters who appear in Otogi Zoshi and indulges in some of the same conceits (this time the gender-swapped member is the usually Hercules-like Kintaro). It’s more lavishly animated than the TV series, but it also relies much, much more heavily on previous familiarity with the original folklore. Frankly, it’s a beautiful mess and you’re better off watching the first two episodes of Otogi Zoshi – or, if you like classic black-and-white cinema, going with my next recommendation.
Kuroneko (藪の中の黒猫, Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko?, "A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove") (1968)
This is unreservedly the best film on this list. It’s a shocking and sensual horror film that’s also a sly social satire. It shows the poverty of the commoners, the brutality and frustrating humiliation of the warriors, and the condescending beauty of the nobility in equal measure. It’s great.
It’s also, of course, a black-and-white movie that’s probably older than most of your players so… umm… they may not be that keen on watching it. If your gaming group includes true cineastes, though, forget what I said about Onmyōji and watch this first!
Raiko no Minamoto – hero of Otogi Zoshi and Kai Doh Maru – returns to the screen, but this time he’s a fatuous martinet who fobs off his monster-killing duties on a subordinate. That subordinate, unfortunately, happens to be the husband of one of the two vampire/cat women who are eating the samurai of Heian-Kyo – and he’s the son of the other woman. This leads to haunting man/ghost lovemaking, severed limbs, and twisted loyalties. It’s great.
No, seriously. It’s great.
(Going slightly off-track for a moment, I have to say that people running Kindred of the East should just chuck out all of the recommended movies in that game’s filmography and just watch Kuroneko instead. Unlike The Bride with White Hair or Demon City Shinjuku, Kuroneko is actually about the damned coming back from hell to feast on the living. The fact that Kuroneko is not included in KoTE’s recommended viewing almost makes me think that the writers didn’t do a whole lot of research. Ha-ha-hah! Surely that couldn’t be true?)
Anyway, Onmyōji, Otogi Zoshi, and Kai Doh Maru can be found for reasonable prices online (and rented from Netflix, I think). Kuroneko is part of the Criterion Collection and so is readily available in finer stores and on Hulu. Watch ‘em.
…If you’re going to run or play in a Heian game, of course.