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.
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, a 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 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.
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 is written by Australian author Lian Hearn. It 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, in order of publication:
Across the Nightingale Floor
Grass For His Pillow
The Brilliance Of The Moon
The Harsh Cry Of The Heron
Heaven's Net Is Wide
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.
This series contains examples of:
Action Girl: Muto Yuki and Muto Shizuka. Kaede also has her moments. Shigeko then outdoes most of them in the fourth book.
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.
Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Fujiwara is a variation; he presents the image of being coldly polite and unfeeling, but nonetheless willing to help as long as he gets to satisfy his love for secrets. He actually relishes psychologically manipulating and abusing people, and has no hesitation in showing his true colours when he has been defied.
In Harsh Cry of the Heron, Hana has grown up to become a more conventional example, and assists Zenko in being a male version, but Takeo at least sees straight through the facade.
Bi the Way: Takeo has had both male and female lovers; this is not treated as out of the ordinary.
Bittersweet Ending: Most of the books end on this note. The Harsh Cry of the Heron is particularly notable, as it ends with most of the cast dead, including Takeo and one of his daughters, the loss of the independence of the Three Countries and Shigeko being married to their conqueror to counterbalance that all the Otori clan's enemies are dead, the annexation is on their terms, the Tribes having been all but wiped out and Kaede finally getting her act together after being an emotional wreck since the end of Brilliance of the Moon.
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.
Demoted to Extra: Happens in-universe to Kaede after she marries Takeo and re-takes Maruyama. Even though she is the one with birthright to the land and should be able to rule in her own right, all the retainers are used to women being subservient to their husbands, so whenever she tries to do something useful she keeps getting politely blocked and advised to wait for Takeo's approval. It gets even worse when she is forced into a marriage with Fujiwara, who keeps her shut away and denies her any power whatsoever. While this might be normal procedure for someone who considers her a beautiful object in his collection, he is shown to relish mentally abusing people, so might have done this precisely because he knows this is the worst thing that can happen to a strong and independent-minded woman who tasted real freedom, power and had a husband who considered her an equal.
Deus ex Machina: Takeo's rise and fall is literally ordained by heaven. The earthquake which destroys Arai's army and saves Kaede from Fujiwara at precisely the right moment could only be down to this.
Die or Fly: The first time Takeo uses his Tribe power of a 'second self', it's to dodge Iida's sword.
Easy Logistics: Averted. The difficulty of moving a large army around is not glossed over, and it is discussed that new overlord Arai has left himself in a very weak long-term position by conquering and expanding too quickly, leaving the land behind him in a shambles and unable to support any long-term plans.
Exposed to the Elements: The vicious winters are a major threat in Grass for his Pillow, and their deadliness to anyone who isn't properly prepared for them is not understated. Brilliance of the Moon likewise shows exactly how bad an idea it is to get caught in a typhoon.
Eye Scream: Iida takes a knitting needle through the eye.
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 actually Kyoto (assuming the history is based off the Warring States period, Edo/Tokyo would not exist as a capital and Kyoto was indeed referred to as Miyako during this period).
Faux Action Girl: Kaede. A fairly realistic example; her apparent Badassery is built up by showing her to fight competently in training situations (and indeed learn reasonably fast), and more than one attempted rapist has failed to realise that she's armed and willing to kill. The fights she's lost so quickly have been against men with at least as much training and considerably more experience than her, in addition to the obvious advantage of physical strength, and by that point they are treating her as a serious opponent so don't make the mistake of underestimating her.
It's also worth noting that it is never suggested that combat is Kaede's main skill; she is much more of a Guile Hero, and consciously builds on this strength because, far from insisting she is a super-badass who can take care of herself, (as is normal for this trope,) she is well aware of her disadvantage in a fight and decides to use her brain instead.
Faux Affably Evil: Fujiwara is normally Affably Evil, being genuinely polite and as friendly as his deliberate coolness permits. However, after he forces Kaede to marry him the discovery of how cruel he can be and his delight in psychologically abusing Kaede makes his completely unchanged level of politeness really unnerving.
Final Boss: Of the original trilogy, Kikuta Kotaro at the end of Brilliance of the Moon. Takeo and Kenji win, but Takeo loses two fingers in the process and nearly dies of a poisoned wound thereafter.
Forced to Watch: It is hinted increasingly strongly that Fujiwara enjoys torturing people, but his particular brand of sadism is in the psychological abuse rather than the physical torture; he forces people to watch something horrific and enjoys the reactions of the watchers rather than the actual torture victims. He clearly relishes the prospect of forcing Kaede to watch Shizuka being tortured to death.
After Takeo inadvertently gets Jo-An tortured through his disobedience, Akio punishes him by telling him every little detail of what the victim goes through.
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 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.
Hot-Blooded: Takeo seems to feel his emotions very intensely, not helped by the fact that he's a teenager for the original trilogy. His lack of self-control when pushed too far, (in addition to various Berserk Buttons that can bring him to that point instantly,) frequently get him into trouble. However, he is also capable of very strong friendship and affection, and ironically, these turn out to be more harmful than his explosive temper; in Brilliance of the Moon he gets an opportunity to think over the various disasters that have affected him and Kaede, and realises that all of the major ones were the result of him giving in to his feelings of love/lust even when he knew it was a bad idea.
Hufflepuff House: The Kuroda and Imai Tribe families, Clan Shirakawa, and Clan Tohan after Iida's death.
Kenji also thinks the Kikuta had one in their training of Takeo; everyone who spends any time at all with Takeo soon discovers that he's extremely stubborn but intensely loyal, and would automatically resist being forced into something, but do absolutely anything for someone who earns his respect and loyalty. Consequently, Kenji is not in the least bit surprised that forcing Takeo to train under the stiff-necked and domineering Akio went rather spectacularly wrong.
Love at First Sight: Kaede has this for Takeo pretty much from the first moment she sees him, when they haven't even met yet! It takes Takeo about five minutes to reciprocate when they actually do meet.
Love Makes You Stupid: Everyone thinks this about Takeo and Kaede, and were it not for the fact that their rise and fall is literally ordained by Heaven they would probably have been shown to be correct, as both lovers do suicidally unwise things to be together.
Low Fantasy: Takes place in a fictional version of feudal Japan, or possibly on a fictional island. The little magic there is tends to be the sort of thing an assassin or spy might find useful, such as short-term invisibility, the ability to conjure a short-lived illusion of yourself, or the ability to put someone into a deep sleep by looking into their eyes. In a stand-up fight a Tribe member can be expected to perform as well as a well-trained warrior with a few tricks up their sleeves, but that's about it.
Mercy Kill: Takeo gains the moniker '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.
More Deadly Than The Male: While Takeo is not stupid, he can always fall back on his Tribe skills, so the fact that Kaede can't (and is constantly in an extremely vulnerable position,) means that she has much more experience of using her brain.
In Harsh Cry of the Heron, Hana is much cleverer and more manipulative than her husband Zenko.
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 she 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, although he does make an on-screen appearance in Heaven's Net is Wide.
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.
Redemption Equals Affliction: Kenji's return to Takeo's side after his enormous betrayal of Takeo and Shigeru in Across the Nightingale Floor is spurred by the manipulation and murder of his daughter Yuki.
Secret Keeper: Fujiwara, as a collector of rare and precious things, is obsessed with finding out all Kaede's secrets and then keeping them; he considers them all the more valuable for being known only to her and him. Kaede eventually trades her secrets for his support, and shares her story with him in every detail, making him the only person apart from her, Takeo and Shizuka who knows the true story of Iida's death.
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.
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'.
Trilogy Creep: Two of them, The Harsh Cry of the Heron (sequel) and Heaven's Net Is Wide (prequel).
Villainous Valour: There are very few villains who can actually be called cowards. Otori Masahiro is possibly the only example, and he's not a particular major antagonist anyway. Everyone else in the setting shows total fearlessness in the face of death.
Windows of the Soul: The Kikuta sleep (which allows them to make someone fall into a trance by looking into their eyes,) attacks its victim through their own psychological weaknesses. This means that while Takeo cannot exactly read minds, he can sense whatever weakness someone has that makes them vulnerable to his gaze, which can tell him some quite important stuff about the person in question. It also means that if someone can resist his gaze it means they either have a huge amount of inner peace or have survived a rather intense psychological baptism by fire and emerged stronger than before.
World's Most Beautiful Woman: Kaede until she gets caught in a fire. Once her little sister, Hana, grows up, she is said to be just as beautiful as Kaede at her peak.
You Are What You Hate: Takeo spends much of his life denying both his Hidden and Tribe upbringing, although he only really dislikes his association with the latter.