Tales of the Otori

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The wind stirred the ancient cedars; the night insects kept up their insistent music. It would always be like this, I thought, summer after summer, winter after winter, the moon sinking towards the hills, giving the night back to the stars, and they, in an hour or two, surrendering it to the brightness of the sun, which would pass above the mountains, pulling the shadows of the cedars after it, until it descended again below the rim of the hills. So the world went, and humankind lived on it as best they could, between the darkness and the light.

Written by Lian Hearn and set in a fictional version of feudal Japan, The Tales of the Otori series tells the story of a pair of Japanese teenagers who become ensnared in a secret war between between two powerful warrior clans, the Otori and and the Tohan. It is told from the perspective of Takeo, young man in whose veins flow the blood of two profoundly different groups: the pacifistic Japanese Christian sect known as the Hidden, and the Tribe, a secret network of supernatural assassins. After his village is massacred by Iida Sadamu, leader of the dominant Tohan clan, Takeo is adopted by the disgraced warrior Otori Shigeru, who wishes to use Takeo's awakening supernatural abilities to overthrow the Tohan. But before he can accomplish this goal, he must first come to terms with his own identity as both a pacifist and an assassin. The other principal viewpoint character is Shirakawa Kaede, whom Hearn describes as her "tribute to all the Japanese women who are nameless in Japanese history, who figure in samurai family trees simply as onna (woman)." A young heiress held hostage to ensure her father's loyalty to the Tohan, Kaede is soon caught up in Shigeru's plot against Iida.

Other important characters include:

  • The Otori -- A once great warrior clan; recently defeated in battle, its standing amongst the great domains has been greatly reduced.
    • Otori Shigeru -- Former heir to the Otori; disgraced in battle against Iida Sadamu; adoptive father of Takeo.
    • Otori Takeshi -- Shigeru's younger brother; was murdered by Iida and the Tohan.
    • Otori Shoichi and Masahiro -- Joint-leaders of the Otori; Shigeru's uncles.
    • Miyoshi Kahei and Gemba -- Vassals of the Otori family; friends of Takeo.
  • The Kikuta -- The dominant family within the Tribe.
    • Kikuta Kotaro -- Leader of the Kikuta; cousin of Takeo's father.
    • Kikuta Akio -- Nephew and heir of Kikuta Kotaro; husband of Muto Yuki.
    • Kikuta Isamu -- Takeo's birth father; cousin of Otori Shigeru and Takeshi.
  • The Muto -- The Kikutas' main rival for control of the Tribe.
    • Muto Kenji -- Leader of the Muto; Takeo's teacher in the ways of the Tribe.
    • Muto Yuki -- Kenji's daughter, Takeo's lover.
    • Muto Shizuka -- Kenji's niece and Takeo's cousin; Kaede's bodyguard and confidante.
    • Muto Zenko and Taku -- Shizuka's sons; twin brothers; Arai's heirs.
  • Others
    • Iida Sadamu -- Ruler of the Three Countries.
    • Kubo Makoto -- A Warrior-Monk of the Terayama Temple; Takeo's closest friend and advisor, possibly his lover.
    • Maruyama Naomi -- Leader of the Maruyama, the last matrilineal domain in the Three Countries; Kaede's cousin; Shigeru's lover.
    • Arai Daiichi -- Warlord in the service of Iida; Shizuka's lover; father of her twin sons.
    • Lord Fujiwara -- An eccentric nobleman with ties to the imperial family in Miyako; Arai's ally.
    • Terada Fumio -- Son of a pirate lord; a friend and ally of Takeo.
    • Kondo Kiichi -- A member of the Kuroda family of assassins; Kaede's bodyguard.
    • Siguta Hiroshi -- Nephew of Maruyama's senior retainer, Haruki; an ally of Takeo and Kaede.
    • Jo An -- An outcast and supporter of Takeo.
    • Dr. Ishida -- Lord Fujiwara's physician; employed by the Muto family; Shizuka's lover.
    • Madaren -- Takeo's sister; later an apostle of the "white barbarian" missionaries.

The series consists of three books which account Takeo and Kaede's role in the downfall of Iida Samamu and its aftermath, as well as a sequel set 14 years after the original trilogy, and prequel set 18 years before. They are:

A film adaption of Across the Nightingale Floor is being planned, and Lian Hearn has confirmed that a script is in progress, being written by David Henry Hwang.


Tropes used in Tales of the Otori include:
  • Action Girl -- Muto Yuki and Muto Shizuka. Kaede also has her moments. Shigeko then outdoes most of them in the fourth book.
  • Action Girlfriend -- Yuki, to Takeo.
  • Anyone Can Die -- The dead outnumber the living by the end of the last book.
  • The Archer -- Shigeko, who also combines this with Lady of War.
  • Arranged Marriage -- Kaede and Fujiwara.
  • Attempted Rape
  • Ax Crazy -- Iida Sadamu.
  • Badass -- A good portion of the cast, but special mention has to go to General Saga; a man so badass that getting shot through the eye only encourages him to pursue an alliance with Takeo's family.
  • Badass Family -- The Mutos, and eventually the Otori under Takeo's rule; in a strange Magic Knight kind of build.
  • Bastard Understudy -- Arai to Iida.
  • Battle Couple -- Takeo and Yuki.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished -- Subverted: Kaede is badly burned in the fire at the end of The Brilliance Of The Moon and loses much of her hair.
  • Becoming the Mask -- Takeo assimilates into his new identity fairly quickly, of course his old life was completely obliterated by the Tohan and he was as good as dead if he even tried to go back, so that helped.
  • Betty and Veronica -- Kaede and Yuki.
  • Bigger Bad -- Kotaro, later Akio.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate -- There are multiple book-specific Big Bads, each with conflicting motives and goals. It borders on Evil vs. Evil at times.
  • Big Bad Wannabe: Iida tries to be this, but is overthrown by Arai.
  • Bi the Way -- Takeo has had both male and female lovers; this is not treated as that big a deal.
  • Blessed with Suck -- Hisao is a ghostmaster, which mainly means a lifetime of headaches and garbled visions of his dead mother.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Kaeda is given a razor-sharp knitting needle by Shizuka to use for self defence should the need ever arise. She kills Iida with it by driving it through his eye.
  • Chekhov's Gunman -- Terada Fumio is introduced in Across The Nightingale Floor, but does not play a major role in the plot until Brilliance Of The Moon.
  • Christianity Is Catholic
  • The Collector: Lord Fujiwara.
  • Depraved Homosexual -- Fujiwara.
  • Deus Ex Machina -- Takeo's rise and fall is literally ordained by heaven.
  • Die or Fly: The first time Takeo uses his Tribe power of a 'second self', it's to dodge Iida's sword
  • Doomed by Canon -- Shigeru, Takeshi and Naomi in Heaven's Net.
  • Disappeared Dad -- Takeo's father.
  • Doomed Hometown -- Mino.
  • Downer Ending -- The Harsh Cry Of The Heron.
  • Dropped A Bridge On Her -- Maruyama Naomi, Muto Yuki.
  • Evil Overlord -- Iida, and later Arai.
  • Eye Scream -- Iida takes a knitting needle through the eye.
  • Face Heel Turn -- Arai.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture -- The story is set in a fantastical alternate version of Japan. The area of the stories corresponds more or less identically to Chugoku, western Japan (just turn the book's map 90 degrees and the coastline matches up nigh-on perfectly). Hagi, Hofu and Matsue retain their real-life locations and placenames, with others renamed/moved. The real town of Tsuwano appears to have been shifted southwards, and Inuyama looks like it would be Fukuyama, a real-life castle town in the same place. The oft mentioned "mainland" is China/Korea, the white "barbarians" in The Harsh Cry of the Heron are from Portugal, and the off-map Imperial Capital of Miyako is more or less Kyoto (assuming the history is based off the Warring States period, Edo/Tokyo would not exist as a capital).
  • Faux Action Girl -- Kaede.
  • Five-Man Band
  • Good People Have Good Sex
  • Heel Face Revolving Door -- Kenji. He sorts himself out in the end.
  • The High Queen -- Maruyama Naomi.
  • Hitman with a Heart -- Takeo, as well as most of the Muto.
  • Hollywood Atheist -- Subverted. Takeo claims not to believe in the God of the Hidden any more, and tells his sister that "there is no Hell (but) that which men make for themselves." However, he infrequently doubts about whether he has fully given up on religion and ultimately tells his friends that they may pray for him in the event of his death.
  • Ho Yay -- Takeo and Makoto.
  • Hufflepuff House -- The Kuroda and Imai Tribe families, Clan Shirakawa, and Clan Tohan after Iida's death.
  • Idiot Ball -- See Poor Communication Kills (below).
  • I Did What I Had to Do -- This becomes Takeo's M.O. as the series goes on.
  • Instant Expert -- Takeo picks up his Tribe skills, swordplay, and artistic abilities fairly quickly; writing, not so much.
  • Invisibility: Turning invisibile is a common Tribe trait. Takeo can do it only for minutes at a time, despite being particularly skilled.
  • It Got Worse -- All 600 pages of The Harsh Cry of the Heron
  • Lady of War -- Shigeko.
  • Long-Lost Relative -- Shigeru turns out to be Takeo's uncle.
  • Loony Fan -- Jo An.
  • Low Fantasy
  • Mercy Kill: Takeo gains the name 'The Angel of Yamagata' after mercy killing several Hidden who were tortured and suspended in baskets to die over a period of days.
  • Me's a Crowd: A weaker version of this is a Tribe skill. Some can split in two, leaving behind a second-self as a distraction that will fade from existence when the user stops concentrating.
  • Muggle and Magical Love Triangle -- Takeo's love interests are Yuki (a supernatural Dark Action Girl assassin) and Kaede (an Ojou).
  • Mysterious Parent -- Kikuta Isamu.
  • Ninja -- The Tribe (Hearn never actually calls them this, but it's essentially what they are).
  • Ninja Maid -- Shizuka, to Kaede.
  • Not Using the Zed Word -- Members of the Tribe are never referred to as Ninja, even though they pretty much are. Similarly, the various warrior clans are never called Samurai.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity -- Takeo pretends to be an ineffectual artist to disguise his true nature.
  • Older Than They Look -- Shizuka is a thirty-something mother of two who has the appearance of a fifteen year-old.
    • She looks that way by using her ninja magic.
  • Old Master -- Matsuda Shingen.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage -- Takeo would love to follow Arai's order to marry Kaede; unfortunately, it isn't as simple as that.
  • Pirates -- The Terada family. At least one major pirate stereotype is averted, however, in that the they are amongst of Takeo's closest allies.
  • Poisonous Friend -- Jo An to Takeo, simply because of his social status.
  • Poor Communication Kills -- Takeo's failure to explain to Kaede about his affair with Yuki. Had she found out in almost any other manner than the one did, the story would have had a much happier ending. For the record, Takeo had twenty years in which to explain all of this, but didn't.
  • Posthumous Character -- Otori Takeshi.
  • Powers in the First Episode: Takeo's Tribe hearing is alluded to in an interlude in Heaven's Net Is Wide, when he uses it to hear and save his drowning sister.
  • She's All Grown Up -- Madaren.
  • Shoot the Dog -- Arai forces Takeo to kill Jo An to prove his loyalty to him.
  • So Beautiful It's a Curse -- Played straight and literally in the case of Kaede. Kaede is so beautiful that nearly every man she meets wants her, and more than one including her own father has tried to rape her. That said, all of her assailants end up dead (often by her own hand), which leads to the rumor that any man who desires her is doomed to die.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers -- Takeo and Kaede, Shigeru and Naomi.
  • Super Senses: The Kikuta possess super-hearing that gradually fades with age. Takeo's is particularly powerful, and he can overhear people talking several houses away. Some Tribe members also possess particularly acute vision, while others can discern invisible Tribe members and recognise a 'second-self'.
  • Tangled Family Tree -- Nearly Everyone Is Related to everyone else. Kissing Cousins and Incest Is Relative factor into things an awful lot, as the majority of the characters are nobility and politically-motivated interbreeding is apparently rampant in the Three Countries.
  • That Man Is Dead -- Takeo's view on Tomasu. It becomes a bit harder to convincingly pull off when Madaren turns up alive and well.
  • Theme Naming -- The Hidden all have Rōmaji Christian names: Jo An (John), Madaren (Madeline), Tomasu (Thomas).
  • Those Two Guys -- Kahei and Gemba. Taku and Zenko. Taku and Hiroshi. Eventually subverted when Zenko pulls an outright Face Heel Turn.
  • Took a Level In Badass -- Kaede in Grass For His Pillow, although in a very unique way. She ends the book as a fully-fledged Guile Heroine, bordering on being an outright Magnificent Bitch at times.
  • Treacherous Advisor -- Muto Kenji.
  • Trilogy Creep -- Two of them, The Harsh Cry of the Heron (sequel) and Heaven's Net Is Wide (prequel).
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him? -- Averted: Fumio shoots Arai just before a major battle.
  • Wicked Cultured -- Lord Fujiwara.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Kaede until she gets caught in a fire.
  • You Are What You Hate -- Takeo spends much of his life denying both his Hidden and Tribe upbringing.
  • You Don't Want to Die a Virgin, Do You?
  • Zen Survivor -- Makoto could be considered this, at the beginning of Grass For His Pillow