Saturday, 23 August 2014

Yari - The Long and the Short of It

The spear is a weapon that has been used in some form in virtually every corner of the earth, and must be, after the club and the rock, one of the most basic weapons devised by mankind. Japan is no exception, and has a long tradition of the use of various pole arms, including spears, dating to way back before the 'samurai' era. However, as far as samurai are concerned, the spear was not even the principal pole arm until the 15th or 16th century. For some reason, it was the naginata that assumed that role, while the spear languished until the time of the Namboku-cho (1334-1392) when it gradually gained popularity. This popularity increased during the early Sengoku period, until, by the time of the famous warlords of the mid to late 16th century, it had assumed the position of one of the main weapons on the battlefield. This was partially due to logistical considerations, and indeed, the growing size of armies meant that it provided a cheap and easy to use armament for levies and other
irregular troops.

Though individuals became famous for their use of the spear, on the battlefield, their particular forte was in tactical deployment. Walter Dening, in his The Life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, tells the story of how Hideyoshi got caught up in an argument to see whether long or short spears were superior. Oda Nobunaga's spear instructor favored short spears (short in this case means up to 8ft long) whereas Hideyoshi favored the longer type.

A trial was arranged: both men would train a group of fifty men in the use of their chosen length of spear,and after three days, the two groups would compete against each other. To cut a long story
short, while the spear instructor taught his men the techniques to oppose the longer weapons, Hideyoshi told his men they had the advantage anyway, so they could attack any way they liked, and wined and dined them. He also divided them into three units so they could make forward and flank attacks. On the day of the contest, Hideyoshi's men made mincemeat of his opponents.

Although this is probably an apocryphal tale, it does indicate the tactical value of the spear on the battlefield. That is not to deny that a shorter spear offers definite advantages to the individual warrior, but in battles employing formations of troops, longer spears offered a decided advantage. In fact, Nobunaga employed longer than average spears in his formations, and even on an individual level,
some warriors made use of the longer spears. Maeda Toshiie, for example, used one that was reportedly 6m in length.

The differences on such weapons also lead to certain specializations in the way they were used. For the ashigaru, who made up the bulk of the armies in the Sengoku period, spear usage was comparatively limited. Among the most common techniques was a downward strike aimed at knocking the opponent's spear downwards. This was particularly useful in tight formations, and contemporary writing suggests that this was seen as preferable to thrusting.

In fact, despite it's efficiency as a thrusting weapon, on the battlefield even the shorter spears were, as often as not, probably used to knock down an opponent and then despatch him. The triangular sectioned blade of the su yari (straight spear) was particularly effective for this, and this may also explain the popularity of the tanged spear head over the socketed type – the tang running deep inside the shaft gives greater durability as well as weighting the head, making it more effective for sweeping and striking movements.

Practice with long weapons quickly brings an appreciation of the difference in their range and speed compared with the sword. Facing someone with a spear (if they are using it well) allows one to realize the advantage it has – it is said that the spear gives its user a 3x advantage. When you see the speed with which a spear can be extended and retracted, how quickly the blade can shoot out at different targets, you appreciate how difficult it would be to face one in earnest.

With the end of the Sengoku Period, the call for spear use declined. Nevertheless, the Bakumatsu period saw some notable use of the spear:

Sakamoto Ryoma's companion, Miyoshi Shinzo, wielded a spear in the famous fight at the Teradaya, as, indeed did their attackers. Ryoma described the events as follows:

  We had come up from the bath and were on the point of going to bed, when we thought we heard something strange; it sounded like the footfalls of someone sneaking around below us (we were on the second floor). Then, in the same way, we heard the clattering of six-foot staves. Just at that time [the woman he would marry], with no thought of her own safety, came running up to us and warned, ‘Look out! The enemy have invaded unexpectedly, and men with spears are coming up the stairs!’ At that, I jumped up, grabbed my hakama and the two swords, along with a six-shooter pistol … and crouched down towards the rear of the room. Miyoshi Shinzo… put on his two swords, and grabbed a spear; and then he too crouched down.
“There were already 20 men lined up with spears; they also had two burglar lanterns, and to top it off there were fellows carrying six-foot staves everywhere…

“By the time this one spear-man was half way up the stairs and coming in my direction. He was on my left. I figured that if there was a spear on my left it could strike me from the side, and so I shifted my position to face to the left. Then I cocked my pistol, and threatened all ten of the spearmen, from right to left. They ran away. Meanwhile, others of the enemy were throwing spears, and also charcoal braziers, and fighting in all sorts of ways. We, for our part, were ducking spears, and you can imagine that it was really a noisy war inside that house. We also hit one man, but I don’t know whether we killed him or not."

As this account suggests, although they were not necessarily wielded with any great skill, spears were still common during this period. Common perhaps, but still unusual enough that expert spearman were far less common than swordsmen. Many schools of martial arts taught the spear along with the sword, but it seems that few had the time or inclination to master this weapon. Among those who did were Yamada Sanosuke of the Shinsengumi, Takahashi Deishu, the shogun's personal spear instructor and brother-in-law of Yamaoka Tesshu, Sagawa Kanbei, one of the leaders of the Aizu forces who fought a brave but losing battle against the Imperial forces under Saigon Takamori, and General Yamagata Aritomo were all noted for their use, or (in the latter case) training, in the spear.

In this period, the spear was no longer a formation weapon, but the weapon of the individual. On the battlefield, the rifle and bayonet had taken its place, but it is clear that the men who wielded it with skill still commanded respect

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Noguchi Tetsuya – another look at 'samurai'

Talking Head 2010
All the pictures in this post are of works by
Noguchi, unless otherwise stated.

Sometimes you see an exhibition that strikes such a deep chord that you say to yourself, 'Yes! This is what art is about!' Rare though this may be, it's even rarer with contemporary art, which was why it was especially refreshing to see Noguchi Tetsuya's one-man show at the Asahi Villa in Oyamazaki – just outside Kyoto.

Not only is the museum (a 1930's villa and garden overlooking the battlefield of Oyamazaki, where Toyotomi Hideyoshi beat the rebellious Akechi Mitsuhide, thus stamping his claim as contending heir to Oda Nobunaga's position) worth seeing in itself, but the exhibition has enough to satisfy anyone with a spark of soul (especially if their childhood contained a healthy dose of model building and painting up the kind of miniature figures used in war games and fantasy role playing games).

Work by Tenmouya Hisashi - used as an
advertisement for the 2006 World Cup
Noguchi, a generation younger than artists such as Yamaguchi Akira and Tenmouya Hisashi, who also have a strong link with historical imagery in their work, unrepentantly takes 'samurai' as his theme, with a refreshing outlook that combines humour and sensitivity, inviting the viewer to share and enjoy his passions, presenting snapshots from an alternative historical narrative that is, at times, so convincing that you are almost fooled into believing it's true. He works with highly detailed figures cast in resign, dressed in leather, cloth and metal(?), as well as painting in a reproduction style, throwing in his own anachronisms that make it more than simply an exercise in model making.

The first thing that strikes the visitor is the incredible degree of skill displayed in the works. The craftsmanship shows a loving attention to detail which, in itself, is more than enough to hold the viewer's attention. This is displayed equally in the paintings, facsimile pages from fictional historical reference works, and in fact, in every aspect of  his finished works.

Chanel Samurai 2009

Some of his work drew attention in the glossy magazines a few years ago because of his collaboration with Chanel - I saw the photos of the models wearing armor stamped with the Chanel symbol, and assumed, because of the detail, that they were, in fact, actual people wearing the armor. Even later on, I'm not sure if I had realised that those photographs were of models, but I certainly assumed that the armour was life size – I was wrong, and this was a pleasant surprise. They worked far better as models (up to about 30 inches high, seated, with many smaller than that) than they would have done full size, inviting both closer examination and a kind of respect and fascination that automatically seems to attach itself to the miniature.

Portrait of an Armoured Warrior
Taking the Field by Bicycle

But all this would be mere model making if it was not imbued with a charm and wit that added to the superb craftsmanship: samurai with propellers on their helmets, jetpacks on their backs and giant robots, all rendered as if they came from the 16th century, which manages to keep the charm and makes it almost believable. Other works aimed at different interstices of past and present, involving fashion, technology and identity.

None Shall Speak 2008

Part of the reason this works is because the samurai remains such present figure in modern Japanese culture, reconfigured to match each new generation. This reinvention, the constant stream of dramas, books, manga, magazines, anime and games which feature samurai, means that they retain a relevance which I would be hard put to find an equivalent for in Britain or the USA. Certainly, some people find it passé, I'm sure, but generations of children are brought up with this as part of their contemporary culture, the same way as I had Star Wars and Judge Dredd in my teenage years.

Samurai Stance 2013

This, I think, is the point. The artist has successfully taken the interests he had as a child, and transformed them without losing the intensity of meaning that they have when you are young; in his case, that intensity is continued through the strength and mastery of his craftsmanship, bringing them into the adult sphere in a way that is neither arch nor mocking. He does not denigrate or hero-worship, but treats his subjects with an interest and respect that brings us closer, perhaps, to seeing ourselves.

you ever get the chance, this is one artist whose works I thoroughly recommend you see.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Sendan no uchi – the sandalwood strike of the Shinkage ryu

A small branch of sendan, showing the way the leaves diverge from the
stem in pairs at each node.
Of course, it’s the cherry trees that garner most of the attention in Kyoto in spring, but it was another tree that caught my eye a few weeks ago as I strolled along the canal. Not a shoot or a sign of a bud, (and even now, at the end of April, when everything around it is a mass of new leaves, it is only tentatively putting forth a few green shoots) but the plaque tied around the thick trunk proclaimed the tree to be a ‘sendan’. I’d had an interest I this tree ever since I came across the somewhat cryptic references in Yagyu writings to the technique and concept of ‘sendan no uchi’.

A quick botanical note – sendan (Melia axderach) is also known as the bead tree or sandalwood; however, it is not the true sandalwood (byakudan) (of the incense type), although the word sendan is sometimes used to describe that tree, too. This may be the route of a well-known saying:
            sendan wa futaba yori kanbashi
The literal meaning if this is sendan is fragrant even in bud, and it is often used metaphorically to refer to the presence of a person’s talent from childhood.

I had come across sendan in the writings of Yagyu Jyubei, and while his style is fairly clear in itself, it is ­– like most of the writings of the period – meant for initiates of the style. His father, Yagyu Munenori, also mentioned the technique, and in both cases the references left me wondering how they related to the sendan tree.

This was obviously also a problem for translators of Munenori’s works into English. In the notes Wilson included in his translation of The Life Giving Sword it says:

“The meaning of Bead Tree (Melia axderach) is obscure, but it may be an allusion to the “Bead Tree Board” or sendan no ita… (a piece of armour) protecting the lacing connecting the chest armour to the back.”

Although, in this case, I don’t believe it has anything to do with the sendan no ita, Wilson’s understanding of the term itself (“This seems to have been a way to avoid striking and being struck at the same time”) is correct as far as it goes ­– unlike Thomas Cleary, who gets it the wrong way round (“The sandalwood state of mind is a code term for slashing twice in exactly the same line.”)
I was hoping Yagyu Toshinaga (20th headmaster of the (Yagyu) Shinkage ryu) would make things clearer: he wrote that sendan no uchi (the sendan strike) was a reminder not to fall victim to aiuchi – the situation in which you are hit at the same time as you hit the enemy. Instead, one strike is just slightly always ahead of the other.  I must admit that, to me, the reference was not altogether clear on this: from what he wrote it could be inferred that sendan no uchi is aiuchi, which is clearly different from what the early generations of the Yagyu had written –  a similar reference occurs in writings from the Eishin ryu attributed to Oe Masaji, a noted headmaster of that school in the mid 1800s, who quite clearly says that sendan no uchi is, indeed, the same as aiuchi.

Oe Masaji (with his daughter)
It also seemed that the both Munenori and Jubei’s understanding of the term is broader. But in all cases, the key feature is that it refers to two of something. In the case of aiuchi, it is two swords both striking. In the case of Munenori and Jubei, the meaning appears to be that of two diverging sword trajectories.

In either case, the meaning derives from the saying mentioned above:
            sendan wa futaba yori kanbashi
The key to the meaning is in the word futaba (bud), which is written with the characters for ‘two’ and ‘leaves’. The character for leaf, ‘ha’ (or ba) has the same pronunciation as that of blade, and thus futaba can be taken to mean two swords.

In this sense, it is, as Cleary stated, a code term related to two actions.Whilst by the 20th century, it seems to have become a term that referred to aiuchi, Munenori and Jyubei both expressly state otherwise (which we will get to later). In both cases the connection with two swords is clear.

It would have been a little disappointing if the symbolism went no further than the saying (although that seems to be the primary source for it), so I was especially interested to see an actual sendan tree.

What I saw, in the pre-bud stage, suggested that the shape of the tree might have played some role in the adoption of this saying by the Yagyu family. It is also interesting to note that this is attributed to Hikita Bungoro (by Munenori, I believe) who perhaps had an affinity for trees… he seems to have been a bit of a wanderer, and Jyubei mentions another of his teachings that features tree symbolism, koyo metsuke (the red maple leaf gaze).

Hikita Bungoro. He was a student of
Kamiizumi Nobutsuna, and senior to Yagyu Sekishusai, and thus
 the generation above Yagyu Munenori.

So, the question remains, how does the symbolism of two relate to the technique Munenori and Jyubei are talking about? What is key, I think is the way that the shoots diverge. Looking at the pictures, what struck me first, on seeing the tree, was how sword-like the bare branches looked. This was especially noticeable with the amount of blossom and new leaves on all the surrounding trees; in addition, each new branch has its opposite, which diverges at an angle from the main branch. To my mind, this suggests the idea of alternative angles/paths of attack, and this is what may have been in the mind of the Hikita Bungoro when he named the concept (if, indeed, it was actually he who did so).

Jyubei says:
My father said the true meaning of sendan no uchi was to be found in the state of mind known as futaba. Although it is bad to strike and step together, it is valid to do so, to avoid the tip of the enemy’s sword and strike his hands. To slip off the line of the enemy’s attack is called sendan (with ‘sen’ being written as tip)….
As two shoots share a single source, the equivalent of that source is the hands. It is a strike to separate the hands from the body.

The concept of angling is key in the teachings of the Shinkage ryu, and seems to be a key element in this technique/concept. Whereas the + is the key shape for syuji shuriken techniques, with sendan, I think it is the V , with the point of the V being the opponent's hands, one line being the line of the opponent's sword, and the other the line of your own sword. It is a technique which enables you to slip off-line and strike the enemy, (so avoiding aiuchi). Both Jyubei and Munenori mention its use against a spear (a very difficult thing in itself) and the possibility of using it as a one-handed technique, but overall, it seems to receive less treatment than syuji shuriken with which it has certain similarities.

Finally, the term kanbashi has another meaning: to be preferred or superior. Thus sendan wa futaba yori kanbashi could also be rendered as 'avoiding the path of the opponent's sword is preferable to aiuchi', a sentiment with which we can probably all agree.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Masterpieces of Chinese Painting at the V&A

The Victoria and Albert Museum's exhibition, Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900, is an amazing opportunity to see some of the most distinguished masterpieces of Chinese art lent by collections from around the world... and they really are masterpieces.

I was expecting a lot from this exhibition, and although the quality of the individual works was extremely high, I was left feeling a little unfulfilled by the exhibition as a whole – perhaps it was that most artists were represented by only a single work, or maybe I missed something of the bombast and quirkiness of the Japanese artists I am familiar with.

Taken overall, Chinese art of this period has a smoothness and balance that distinguishes it from Japanese art. Although some of the artists displayed great flair and originality, not to say dynamism, it is probably safe to say that there is a greater regularity in brushwork and tone in the work of Chinese painters than their Japanese counterparts.

But on to the works themselves – there were several that really stood out for me – two of which I had known for many years, but had only seen as reproductions, once again reminding me of the value of seeing art in the original.

The first piece that really struck me was one I hadn't seen before – The Summer Palace of Emperor Minghuang , traditionally ascribed to Guo Zhongshu, a 10th century painter of the Northern Sung, but actually thought to date somewhere between 1350-1400. Gorgeously mounted (as such paintings in Japanese museums often are – this one was on loan from the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, which still describes it quite confusingly as a work by Guo, while at the same time faulting the brushwork of the copyist and placing it as a late Yuan work), it shows the height of technique of late Yuan/early Ming Dynasty painters.

Looking at a painting like this, one can understand why academic painters sought to reproduce the skills of their forebears, especially the painters of the Song Dynasty. Superbly painted in line, the detail and modulation of tone seemed faultless; the dim light and glass in front of the work may have prevented me from seeing the way in which 'the fine details have been somewhat corrupted' - I think I need to see a real work by Guo to assess that. As far as I was concerned, the finesse of the detail goes down as far as the eye can take it, yet it never threatening to overwhelm the larger dynamics of the composition.

The highlight of the exhibition was the Nine Dragon Scroll (1244) painted some 100 years earlier, by Chen Rong (1189-1268). It was displayed to show its full length, some five metres or so. I suppose the thing that first struck me  was its size – or more particularly, the size of the dragons. Having only seen fairly small reproductions, I had imagined it was somewhat smaller than it actually was.

Size is actually quite an interesting element of Chinese art. Chinese books often failed to print the dimensions of works, and this is, in many cases, a deliberate policy to prevent accurate copies being made. Likewise, colours are often misreproduced, once again making accurate copying impossible. Artistic legitimacy and secrecy for its own sake are deeply embedded in the culture.

For me, as usual, the chance to see the way the artist had painted the work was what was most interesting. Chen had  employed a dry brush technique – something I hadn't seen used to this degree before – with great skill, combining it with darker and lighter lines in wet ink for most of the 'drawn' features. The painting of the waves allowed quite a degree of insight into Chen's painting methods. He used dabbing strokes, almost like a dotted line, rather than the single flourish non-painters often imagine is employed. The lines on the torrent as it rushes forth from the rock are more forceful – here, too, they were painted with light ink first, sometimes over-brushed with darker ink.

These two details show some of the techniques used in these paintings.

This was clearly a painting that required some degree of planning and careful attention to detail through much of its execution, and yet Chen Rong himself wrote about receiving inspiration through drink, and his contemporaries wrote of how he spattered ink and would even sometimes use his hat to scrub at the ink, sometimes tearing the paper – evidence of both these can be seen in this scroll – but it is far from being 'dashed off'. This is the result of many hours of concentration: each individual dragon displays meticulous brushwork in the delineation of the scales. Some of the effects, certainly, require a degree of abandonment, and this may have been of a more spiritual variety rather than alcohol induced; it is quite possible that he planned the work or made initial sketches for it in such a state, and the theme of 'Bohemian' habits among artists is often commented upon in Chinese and Japanese artistic traditions – the Chinese tradition stretched back to painters such as Wang Mo, who painted with his head, feet and hands, as well as his brush, creating a semi-abstract underlay upon which he apparently built his paintings (none survive today).

Another work that grabbed my attention was Chen Patriarch Harmonising his Mind (13th century), one of a pair traditionally attributed to Shi-ke, a painter of the 10th century. This is an often reproduced painting, and one I had seen on many occasions in books – to be honest, I had not been particularly struck by it. Seeing the actual work was a very different experience. The ink had a particular rich and vibrant quality to it, and though it was powerful and dynamic, like Chen Rong's painting, it had not simply been dashed off on the spur of the moment – a powerful artistic intelligence was at work here. The strong black accents jump out against the saturated grey of the robe; while the contrast of the delicate features of the face and the pale head against the light wash of the background give it an unexpected subtlety.

I was not the only one who was impressed: Brian Sewell, the acerbic critic of the London Evening Standard commented on this painting:
"...I saw brushwork of such freedom and certainty that it far outdoes Rembrandt and did not become the language of draughtsmanship in Europe until the 20th century."
It is probably the finest example of 'Zen' style painting I have seen, with all the elements that are typical of later Japanese 'Zen painting', especially the powerful, 'spontaneous' brushwork and it is not surprising that this style became emblematic of Zen painting in Japan. Perhaps what I find most inspiring is that this style, this approach, is not solely aesthetic. It has spiritual and philosophic dimensions. Abstract expressionism in the 20th century explored some of the same ground, and sometimes with conscious reference to east-Asian traditions; here, in a small work some 700 years old was a power and vibrancy those painters would have been proud to achieve.

There was much more in the exhibition, and I am sure that others with different interests would have highlighted a different selection of works. Many of the works speak to more recent preoccupations of artists, yet often deriving from very different histories or concerns. Yet for any lover of painting, there should be something to give food for thought.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Sekigahara - the question of Musashi's role in the decisive battle

Musashi and Matahachi stagger off the field of Sekigahara
– as the movies saw it.

October 21st 1600 saw one of the most decisive battles of Japan's history – Sekigahara.

This was where Tokugawa Ieyasu and his combined forces faced the so-called Western Alliance under Ishida Mitsunari. It was touch and go at first, but some well-timed treachery on th epart of one of Mitsunari's allies handed Ieyasu the victory, allowinghim to consolidate and extend his control across the whole country and ushering in the Tokugawa era, which was to last for more than 260 years.

This battle forms an important part of the story of Miyamoto Musashi as told in numerous novels, films, TV series and serious accounts of his life, telling how, as a young man, he fought at Sekigahara, survived the hunting down of the defeated forces (it is always assumed he was fighting on the side of Ishida Mitsunari) and went on to fame and fortune.

However, there is some doubt as to how accurate this version of events might be. As more of the sources for the story of Musashi become available in English (and the story is researched more thoroughly in Japanese), there is serious cause for questioning the veracity of this story. Although Musashi did, indeed, fight during the time of the Sekigahara campaign, it seems most likely that it was in the fighting that occurred in Kyushu at the same time.

The Kokura Hibun
The evidence is, at the very least, contradictory. Although the story is so familiar, it is hard to know where it comes from. The Kokura Hibun (1654), the monument raised by Musashi's adopted son, Iori, does not specifically mention either location, merely stating that that 'During the plot of Toyotomi's treacherous vassal, Ishida Jibu-no-sho..... (Musashi) was renowned for his valour and skill with the sword.' – in fact, the lack of specificity in this instance has caused assumption that he fought on the side of the rebels, though there is no evidence to support this supposition.

The Honcho Bugei Shoden (1716) does mention he fought at Sekigahara, but there is no mention of the source for this information. (Hinatsu Shigetaka, who compiled this fascinating collection of tales of bugeisha, seemed to have collected and collated everything he could find about his subjects, but where this information comes from is unclear. He quotes the Kokura Hibun, and it is possible that he made the assumption that Musashi fought at Sekigahara based on this. It seems likely that the Sekigahara Campaign, being much more important than the one in Kyushu, was the first one that anyone would think of in this regard; it may also be that the Kokura Hibun purposely allows the reader to think of Sekigahara, as that would confer greater esteem on Musashi (as if he needed it).  Of the other main sources, the Bukoden (1755) and the Bushu Denraiki (1727), the Bukoden mentions the battle, but does not specifically place Musashi at the battle, whereas the Bushu Denraiki gives specific details of the Musashi's involvement, but places him firmly in the Kyushu campaign. The Nitenki, which was written a few years after the Bukoden (1776 in fact) and largely based on it, does place him at Sekigahara, but once again, there seems to have been no hard evidence for this. It was the version in the Nitenki that Yoshikawa Eiji relied on in writing his epic work, and the majority of subsequent versions follow him to a lesser or greater degree.
Map showing Kyushu c.1600

It also includes a couple of small vignettes about his actions during the battle, both of which paint a picture of a boastful, daring youth convinced of his own indestructability. Given he was only 16 at the time, but had already proven himself in duels with adults, this is not too surprising. In one of these stories he jumps off a small cliff into a clump of bamboo stakes but emerges unscathed; while in the other, he is injured in the thigh as he storms a wall, but calmly waits till the offending spear is poked through the arrow slit, grabs it behind the head, and putting his leg to it, breaks it in two.

So, who to believe? Interestingly, the Kyushu story was drawn from Kuroda Clan documents, and William de Lange mentions the discovery of recent documents which corroborate it. As is well known, Musashi's own writings make little specific mention of any of his battles, but it seems far more likely that the experience of a short but successful campaign like that in Kyushu, especially under the comand of the noted strategist Kuroda Josui, would have influenced him in the direction he was to take - of seeing the fundamental similarities in large and small scale combat - than th eslaughter at Sekigahara would have done.
Kuroda Josui (from a portrait in the Fukuoka City

It is interesting to note that Josui gathered together a somewhat irregular force, consisting of any volunteers he could get his hands on - the main body of Kuroda troops having been already despatched to fight on Tokugawa's side - (his son would be praised by Tokugawa Ieyasu for his role at Sekigahara - Josui's reaction was characteristic, - I mentioned it here) - and thus the 16 year old Musashi would have been warmly welcomed into such a force.

Josui took a series of castles in Buzen, moving up to Chikuzen Province, where he joined forces with Kato Kiyomasa to lay siege to Yanagawa in Chikugo. Ieyasu rightly suspected signs of ambition in this, and respecting Josui's abilities, sought to deter any further action. Josui, realising the cards were stacked against him, declined the offers of position offered by Ieyasu, and retired, leaving his newly promoted son as head of the clan.

 In the Hyôdôkyô, written five years later, when he was still only 21, Musashi writes of how to storm a gate and take prisoners. While it doesn't preclude this reference being to the Sekigahara campaign (during which Musashi is claimed to have participated in two sieges - attacking and defending Fushimi and Gifu castles respectively, although once again, the evidence for him taking part in these sieges is slim) - he would certainly have been able to garner more experience in Josui's army, particularly due to its small size and irregular composition.

I think the Kyushu campaign sounds more likely, but the weight of tradition leans heavily the other way – perhaps new evidence will come to light. Certainly, Josui will be in the limelight over the next year or so – the 2014 NHK year-longTaiga drama is based around his life. It might give extra impetus for proving the Musashi connection.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Leonard Foujita

Self Portrait with Cat

Leonard Foujita (1886-1968), as he was known in later life (Foujita Tsuguharu for the earlier part of his career) was an unusual figure in the Japanese art world - being, perhaps, the only Japanese artist who established himself in the artworld of Paris in the heady days of the 20s and 30s.

His style was distinctive, and grew from a thorough grounding in traditional Japanese brush techniques which he combined with modernist sensibilities. He worked mainly in oil, and produced works that are immediately recognizable, successfully synthesizing the two cultures into works that seem to partake of both yet not really sitting completely in either.

Unlike so many of his compatriots who followed the styles of their European contemporaries, Foujita maintained his identity through the use of subtle line-work over an almost translucent pearl-white ground. Given that the Japanese avant-garde felt the pull towards European styles as, in part, a reaction towards the more conservative and reactionary forces within Japanese society, Foujita's stance is perhaps a sign of the ambivalence that was to create problems for him later.

Self-portrait in the Studio (1926)

Obviously a character, whose persona bled into his artworks, he tended towards the depiction of figures, often women, and cats. This latter theme would be an unusual choice for western painters, but animal painting was a widely respected genre among Japanese painters (as it is to this day).

The 1930s saw his return to Japan, where he took up a pro-establishment role, and painted several large canvasses on military themes, abandoning the refinements of his previous style. It is hard to judge the motivations of those who supported harsh authoritarian regimes during the pre-war years, but in the case of Foujita, his contemporaries did not forgive him from cozying up with the government, and he was expelled from the New Art Association after the war. He moved to new York, and was eventually granted a visa to France, where he lived for the rest of his life. having converted to Catholicism along with his wife, his later works tend towards the sentimental, and much of it is religious in nature.
Cafe (1949)

The thirties also saw several extended painting trips – to China and to Latin America. It is from the former that he painted this image below of Chinese wrestlers. Afficianados of the martial arts will no doubt immediately recognize the characteristic clothes still worn by practitioners of shuai chiao today.

Wrestlers in Beijing (1935)

It is quite a striking work, much more so if you see it in the flesh, helped by its size (180x225cm) but it was his choice of subject that was so arresting for me, the martial arts having so little crossover into the fine art world in the usual course of things.

For comparison's sake, here is a painting of a Japanese wrestler. This is also quite large (155cm or so in height), and the way in which he combines the traditional and the modern is quite striking.

Although very popular in Japan right now, he is relatively unknown in the west. The Akita Prefectural Museum has a good collection of his works, and recently put on display a digital replica of a mural painted in the style of the traditional Kano school (with Rimpa influences). The original is on the walls of a private club in Paris, where it remained relatively unknown until just recently. What makes this even more surprising is that this work was painted in oils, rather than traditional pigments. I'm not likely to find myself in this kind of private members' club in Paris, but if I was, I would love to see the painting.

Flowers and Birds (1929)

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Hyoshi: timing, rhythm and translation

The cover of the Victor Harris translation

This is a slightly expanded version of a post I made on the forum at with reference to a question about the difference between background timing and distance timing as mentioned in The Book of Five Rings. This seemed to ring a bell with me, and a quick look at the old Victor Harris translation confirmed that it was from there. The section concerned (from the Earth Book) reads:

'...and from among the large and small things and the fast and slow timings find the relevant timing, first seeing the distance timing and the background timing.'

Translation can be a tricky business. In this case, the trouble is, Musashi did not actually write this.  Much as I like the Harris version, some of the subsequent versions, particularly those by William Scott Wilson and Kenji Tokitsu, are generally more accurate. Wilson’s is generally reckoned a solid translation; Tokitsu's is the most transparent, as he goes into some length about the reasons for various aspects of his translation (as well as much else).

In this case, the section that most closely matches the one the questioner was referring to is this one. What Musashi actually wrote was:

...daisho chisoku hyoshi no naka ni mo, ataru hyoshi wo shiri, ma no hyoshi wo shiri, somuku hyoshi wo shiru koto

There is no pairing of background and distance timing/rhythm. In fact, there is no term relating directly to background rhythm as such.

Wilson translates this section as: 

Within the rhythms of large and small, slow and fast, know the rhythm of contact, the rhythm of spacing and the rhythm of resistance to rhythm.

This is a good, straightforward translation. However, Wilson is not a swordsman, and doesn't always catch the subtleties of technical terms. ‘The rhythm of spacing’ is actually a little problematic. 

The classic scene from The Seven Samurai when Kyuzo
shows the importance of finesse in timing.

Although ma has something of the meaning of distance/spacing, it is more correct to see it as interval – it is capable of referring either to space or time (i.e. the time between two things happening or between two things happening). In this case, the sense of ‘time’ is probably meant rather than ‘space’; if this is so (there are other instances in Musashi’s writings that suggest it is) the meaning is thus closer to ‘rhythm between actions’, e.g. the time between the opponent finishing one move and starting another. At a deeper level, the ma would be much smaller than this suggests, a tiny gap in perception rather than action.

I would translate it as:
Within the rhythm of large and small, fast and slow, you should understand the rhythm of striking, the rhythm between actions, and the use of counter rhythms.

..which is not perfect, but does address ma no hyoshi. It is also worth noting that in his 35 Articles on Strategy, Musashi has a section on hyoshi no ma (the gaps in rhythm) in which he deals with more or less the same issue.

Having said 'more or less', I should note that the Gorin no sho is open to interpretation due to the way it is written, and that once translated, this problem is magnified. Musashi certainly meant his strategy to be widely applicable, but while he could generalize, he could also be quite specific. In fact, the ability to make fine distinctions was crucial to his art.
Though he might be glad that readers of his work were pondering deeply on the difference between the different hyoshi he mentioned, he would, of course, be quick to point out that this understanding should be based on practice, not mere cogitation.