Friday, 31 December 2010

Year of the Usagi

Helmet with large hare's ear crest, probably made of lacquered linen or paper
Happy New Year!

Perhaps confusingly, Japan starts the New Year on Jan 1st, but also uses the Chinese astrological designations for each year - the Year of the Tiger is over here, and the Year of the Hare has just begun.

I don't know if there is any value in characterising years by their astrological sign, but if there were, I would say that this past year has lived up to its image of power and ferocity, leaving its claws in to the very last.

The hare is quite different, of course, and interesting as a symbol. Though often translated as rabbit, it is not the Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter kind of animal, but more Brer Rabbit. Many Japanese folktales attest to this side of its nature. The earliest mention I know of is from the Kojiki, where the white hare has got stuck on an island, and to get off tricks all the sharks in the area to line up between the island and the coast on the pretext of counting them to decide whether the hare clan or the shark clan is largest. The hare runs across their backs to the mainland - of course, it can't resist a final quip, telling the sharks what it has done, and gets its skin torn off for its pains (surviving to fight another day). From this comes the common image of the hare and waves.

Rabbit in the Moon menuki - courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute
Artistically, the Japanese hare looks much like our cuddly bunny. It was much used by the samurai as a symbol of speed and determination to go forwards. Interestingly, the samurai didn't feel a need to always use 'tough-looking' symbols to portray military prowess. As part of a wider culture with multiple meanings in different fields (military, religious, political, personal) they had wider concerns than looking mean and surly - if you were a professional, spending a large amount of your life campaigning, you didn't have to try to look military - you were anyway.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi:s depiction of Shinozuka Iga-no-kami, a 14th century warrior
Quite a few examples, from a variety of historical periods show hare crests, sword ornaments, helmet decorations etc. The recent exhibition at the Met in New York had a good example of rabbit ears on a helmet, for example, and in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, the general Miki Yoshiaki (the noble Banquo character) has a hare crest on his sashimono (banner) and ears on his helmet.

Still from Throne of Blood - note the crest on the banner on the left. You can just see the small hare ears on his helmet, too.

So, returning to the story above, the image I have for this year, is running swiftly towards your goal, passing freely over the waves over the backs of the sharks (and avoiding their jaws if you just keep your mouth shut for long enough).

Best wishes to you all.

Tsuba from late 16th/early 17th century (

Sunday, 26 December 2010

The Beautiful Women of Uemura Shoen

Exhibition flyer showing the famous work, 'Start of the Dance' 1938

The recent exhibition of Uemura Shoen’s (1875-1949) work at the Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, was a good chance to get an overview of this prolific artist. Almost anyone familiar with Japanese art of the twentieth century will have run into her work – indeed, she was one of the most prolific of the Kyoto based artists working in the ‘Bijinga’ (beautiful women) field. Despite the evident beauty of many of her works, I think we can say a little more than that about them. I was very impressed by some of them, and not so much by others. Once again, the catalogue is not necessarily a help in making judgements, as much of the power of the earlier works is lost, and the later ones benefit from having the large empty expanses reduced in scale.

Here are some of my observations...

Detail from 'Preparing to Dance' 
The exhibition included about 100 of her works, including many of the most famous ones, and a room full of sketches, giving a broad overview of her oeuvre. I would say that the first thing that strikes the visitor is how skillfully she uses her medium. The first room, in particular, shows some beautifully painted works – she had clearly mastered the tradition in which she worked and had imbued her subjects with a grace and lightness which makes them perfect exemplars of their type. As a woman in a male dominated world, she must have had to battle for every inch of ground, and in terms of the paintings themselves, she was more than successful. The bokashi (delicate blending) was exquisite, and she showed very sure handling of form, line and colour – which is to say, she drew very well, with delicate, finely articulated figures; her brushwork showed great finesse (for those unfamiliar with it, brushwork is a different quality to that in western art – the outlines of figures and drapery are drawn with long single strokes of the brush… one line = one stroke, and so the firmness, decision and liveliness of the line itself, as well as the form it escribes or the shape it encloses, have value.) Skill with colour is also a technical skill, as well as being a matter of choice. Not only do the colours have decorative and emotional impact, but the manual skill necessary for laying down flat, unblemished areas of colour is also part of the mastery. Looking closely, it was possible to ascertain something of the covering qualities of the different pigments – the reds, in particular looked very strong and solid. This is something it is difficult, if not impossible to judge through a catalogue, in which most of the subtleties have been removed, (partly due to printing coasts, I assume), and is the one of the reasons why paintings can have so much power when you see them as objects, rather than images.

Moving into the next gallery, there was a slow but discernible change in the pictures as Shoen, a mature artist in her 40s-50s, followed different paths of development. The catalogue notes tell us she was searching for inner emotion, expressing it through the restriction of expression, resolving the previous details of the background into larger areas of denser colour. Part of her inspiration for this came from her interest in Noh theatre in which, unlike kabuki, which delights in powerful, expressive movements of the body and face, the actors wear masks that allow for no direct communication of feelings through facial expression. Though I can appreciate her desire to replicate something of this in paint, there are some aspects of particular arts that are resistant to transfer. In fact, this is what gives them their own particular characteristics. Noh is a rather refined art, but it has a dynamism that is expressed through the restraint of the movement and the fine carving of the masks. What works in this context cannot necessarily be transferred to the medium of paint. Whereas in Noh, the control and skill, the suppressed emotional energy are present in the voice, the movements, the gestures, and are evident to the observer, in a painting, that degree of restraint, especially in a style that utilizes thinly brushed lines and colours points to vacancy, rather than pent up, focussed energy. I’m afraid that, to my mind, the paintings fell into this category – they appeared to coarsen and lose their finesses and subtlety. Far from giving greater insight, they gave less, I felt, as there were fewer queues to work from.

Detail of 'Start of the Dance'... the delicate articulation of line of the earlier works is clearly lacking - but what is there in its place?
I am aware that this is partly a cultural difference, and that inexpressiveness is supposed to speak volumes, but I am also aware that this can be an excuse for hollowness – a real lack of substance. Look beneath the fine exterior and you will find… nothing. Focus becomes turned in on itself, an exercise in mental tension, with no content other than the concentration itself.

I see the attraction of such theories – paring down the inessentials to focus on content – but in this case, the actual works did not bear them out. I can also see that an artist might move in a direction that doesn’t necessarily result in better work. It may be for personal creative reasons, the result of market pressure, or just a drift with the times as fashions changed.  For Shoen, I think it was probably a combination of all of these.

It seems she was greatly affected by the criticism of bijinga at the 9th National Art exhibition (1915). Although her works were not singled out, the genre came under fire for being out of touch and irrelevant to modern times. Added to this was the suggestion that the women depicted in these paintings were not ‘real’ women, merely pretty, doll-like figures. Of course, not only were many of them indeed, doll-like, but were also geisha, and thus could be regarded as ‘play-things’ in another sense, as-well. In fact, one has only to look at the faces in Shoen’s earlier work to see the truth of this criticism.

This would have been enough to give anyone food for thought. The direction she moved towards was not unique (though on reading the exhibition catalogue, you might be forgiven for thinking so). Many artists took a similar tack, flattening and slightly abstracting the principle images, in so doing, hoping to go beyond the superficial likeness and achieve more psychological insight and universality. In fact, Shoen’s son was one of those who did just this, followed by his son in turn.

Uemura Shoen, 'Contemplation' detail, 1946
Unfortunately, to my eye, many of the best of these paintings appear merely decorative, and the worst, distinctly amateur. It was the beginning of a slow road towards superficiality and prettiness. Not that Shoen’s paintings fall into either of these categories, but she was schooled in a far harder discipline than those who came after her. I think part of the problem is that she abandoned the absolute purity, the finesse and beauty of her line, and what she replaced it with never came up to the same level. Whereas a painter such as Terashima Shimei produced works that employed simplification and gave insight into character, this never really comes out in Shoen’s work.
Terashima Shimei, 'Winter' 1941

However, this should not be taken as detracting from her stature as an artist – the artist brings him or herself to the artwork, and reveals their humanity, in all its glory and all its faults.

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Symbolism of Yagyu Tsuba

Suigetsu                                 Marunami
General remarks

This is just a rather general introduction to the symbolism of these tsuba, as I understand it, based on a number of years of desultory research and mulling it over. The illustrations are drawings I did to illustrate a few of the more significant motifs – photos can be found here and there, but there is surprisingly little on the web. Mind you, determined searching has turned up some quite interesting examples.

Symbolism in classical martial arts falls into several categories – when interpreting these symbols we should bear in mind that a number of different interpretations may be plausible, and some of these may be what the symbol was originally intended to convey. Others may be ‘correct’ in that they represent the present teachings of the school (though whether these are still close to the art as it was practiced several hundreds of years ago is not always easy to ascertain), or they may represent concepts or metaphors that are entirely accurate and consistent with the teachings of the schools but are the result of personal insight on the part of the instructor, and were not necessarily passed on from previous generations. Then there are guesses. Some of these may be very good, but some of them may be way off.

Yagyu tsuba incorporate a number of motifs which are familiar to those involved in the martial arts and which relate to the principles of Yagyu heiho. Many of the designs include a combination of symbols in a single image – the symbolism may be composite, or it may contain references which are not apparent to those unfamiliar with the teachings of the ryu. Some of these may be interpreted broadly, but, of course, someone who has undergone extensive training in the Yagyu tradition is likely to have a more subtle understanding of the concept as it is embodied in the ryu. I believe that some of the symbolism operates on several levels, so even a relative beginner in the style may be able to associate certain motifs with the names of kata or techniques, but an advanced practitioner will be able to attach a deeper meaning to the same design.

Categorising the motifs
The designs can be categorised in several different ways – some of the names appear to relate directly to names of kata or concepts which are mentioned in writings of the Yagyu family, while for others I can find no direct written references, but seem connected to concepts that are important in Yagyu heiho. Some of the motifs seem quite obvious at first glance, while others are more abstract, either in terms of the conection to heiho, or in the design itself. Finally, there are those which are merely illustrative.

Another way of looking at the designs is to consider the degree to which the treatment of the motif is related to its meaning. For example, is the way bamboo depicted telling us anything important with regard to heiho, other than the fact of it being bamboo? I believe that the answer is yes in some cases – the repetition of the sinuous line in the water motifs is repeated in well ropes clouds and cords – it is tempting to believe that this has something of the quality of movement employed in Yagyu swordsmanship. Other designs have a symmetry that conveys force and balance…. very different from the wave designs, but perhaps also illustrative of imporant atributes in swordsmanship. Some of the more decorative tsuba from other schools also depict water, waves,bamboo and any number of  motifs, but in none of them do I have the feeling that they are connected in any way to swordsmanship beyond the choice of motif itself.

I have never heard any reliable estimate of the total number that exist – I have seen something like fifty or more different designs, and I am sure there are more.

What do they mean?
Perhaps the most distinctive motif is water. This recurs in a number of different designs, but in each, sinuous ripples and waves fill the tsuba We can imagine Renyasai discussing the design and saying, “Yes, it should be like this.” In terms of heiho, this may relate to the relationship between a swordsman and his opponent, where the superior swordsman, with no pre-planned strategy, responds naturally to the moves of his opponent, slipping into the gaps that appear in his opponent:s defense, flowing around his attacks, filling the empty spaces, just as water does. Though water may not have its own shape, it does have a characteristic movement, and this is what is depicted.

The water motif is perhaps most commonly depicted in ‘The moon in the water’ (suigetsu), which is well known through its connections with Zen Buddhismalthough it has older antecedents and connections to other schools of Buddhism and the Confucianism of Chu Hsi. Even outside its martial context you can see different interpretations, depending on what aspect of the relationship between the moon and its relection are being highlighted. I have seen it discussed as referring to the aim in Yagyu swordsmanship of reflecting the opponent’s movements in the same way that water reflects the image of the moon: that is, akind of melding with the opponent’s movement without the intervention of the conscious mind. This interpretation usually lays stress on the calmness of the water as a pre-requisite for accurately reflecting the image of the moon. Similarly, it is said, the swordsman’s mind must be calm. Interestingly, the water in Renyasai’s tsuba is anything but calm, having the same sinuous lines as in his other designs. This reinforces my feelings about the quality of movement that is required, but also makes me think that the specifics of ‘the moon in the water’ are not so easily explained.

Even within the Yagyu school, we can see there are different explanations for suigetsu, and without being personally taught, I think it is difficult to appreciate the precise meaning of the phrase, and the way in which the different descriptions relate to the imagery of the concept. Suffice to say, despite its derivation from philosophy, it is not a theory, but the title of a technique or skill, but one that I think is properly categorized as mukei – shapeless (or not dependent on specific moves or positions).

Visually, there is, of course, a moon in the top of the design, and its image is reflected in the waves at the bottom – although it is sometimes hard to see.
sangaku, dōsasa and tsurubenawa

Another well-known design is one known variously as ippon take, take kirikabu and dōsasa, which shows the base of growing bamboo with twigs and a few leaves. This is an important design, as it was the one Renyasai had on his own sword, Kagotsurube (well basket – suggesting a well bucket made of woven bamboo… obviously not very efficient in drawing up water). The typical image of bamboo as a symbol in the martial arts conjures up images of pliability, bending to release its load of snow, unlike the more rigid trees which eventually break under the weight. In this case, it is clearly being referred to somewhat differently. I have not seen an explanation which strikes me as being entirely correct (perhaps someone with personal experience of this could put me right, but I have my own ideas). I have seen it related to the first technique, itto ryodan, (cutting in two with one stroke) of the first set of Shinkage-ryu kata, but the relationship is not immediately clear. On reflection, I think it probably refers to the importance of the roots and base of the bamboo, which allow the rest of the bamboo to display its characteristic flexibility. This blend of strength and pliability is important in swordsmanship, and similarly, it is the strength of the hips and legs that allow the freedom of movement in the sword and the upper body.

On the subject of itto ryodan, this is also supposed to be the inspiration for the design called tsurube-nawa (well rope), which shows a pair of well buckets and the attached rope. You have to look carefully to make out the buckets – it took me quite a while to see them (that was before I checked the title). If you are familiar with double-bucketed Japanese wells, the symbolism is fairly clear. If you let a full bucket go, it would immediately drop back in to the well, bringing the other one up. Of course, they pass each other on parallel paths, very much like the itto ryodan technique. It is easy to see how this relationship and the immediate descent of the bucket, acting entirely unconsciously, can be applied to the movement of the sword. Likewise, I have seen it applied to raito (lightning sword), a shinkage-ryu technique from a jodan position, which is, I believe, a variation or closely related to itto ryodan.

Also interesting are the motifs that have a theoretical rather than pictorial basis. These include sangaku (three learnings) which is also referenced in the first chapter of Yagyu Munenori’s Heihokadensho, The Shoe Offering Bridge, which came down from Yagyu Sekishusai. They are posture, limbs, and sword. This triangle motif, and the related mitsuboshi (three stars) are repeated in a variety of combinations. This is probably a clue to a deeper meaning – in Legacies of the Sword, Karl Friday describes it as ’code’ for ‘sangaku-no-en’ denoting the way in which the motion of the sword is. or contains a spiral motion built on three points – a triangle within a circle. Also quite common are the square and diamond shapes. These appear to refer to the ability to be centred and maintaining a kamae that has no deviation one way or another – it is facing all four sides.  The wheel is another common motif – it occurs in various technique names and the design known as namiguruma (waves and wheel) or suisha (waterwheel) was used by Renyasai for his wakizashi, Sasa-no-tsuyu (dew on the bamboo grass). It relates directly to various techniques and the ‘wheel’ kamae but in a deeper sense, to the kind of movement that inspired names such as suisha, hana-guruma, oni-guruma.
Yagyu-gasa, marobashi, jumonji, namiguruma

Lastly, for the moment, there are two motifs linked to some key concepts of the school: marobashi, which relates to the freedom to move in any direction, like a rolling ball, and jumonji,  (cross), the meaning of which is better left to those who actually train in shinkage-ryu. (I gather no-one is particularly happy with the translations/explanations that have been given in published versions of Heihokadensho).

I would be glad of any comments or information from shinkage-ryu practitioners (or anyone else, for that matter) who can shed any more light on this fascinating subject.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Samurai Mind - in my bookstore now

I had a nice surprise today as I was browsing through the local English language bookstore - it was seeing this on the shelf. If you check the author, you will see that it is my own book, but I had last heard it was due out in March, and hadn't expected to see any copies till the New Year, when I would be getting a few pre-publication copies. I have yet to get any of those, but I did actually buy a copy to send to my brother, who will, I hope, appreciate it. I left the other copy on the shelf in the hope that someone with good taste or ample curiosity would snap it up quickly.

Of course, as I wrote it I am going to recommend it, but for more than just that. As an enthusiast myself, I wrote something I hoped that other enthusiasts would enjoy, and that would add something to their knowledge, and to the field in general. It is a book of translations from 18th-19th century Japanese writers on the inner factors involved in swordsmanship. All of these writers, save one, were masters themselves, and put down some very interesting insights on paper. What is unusual about these works, for readers familiar with Musashi's Gorin no sho or Yagyu Munenori's Heihokadensho, is that they were written for a wider audience than the master's inner circle of top students. This means that they are far easier to access for readers outside that tradition, but give enough of the flavor of these inner aspects for the reader to be able to understand them (to a certain degree) for him/her-self.

My own experience in swordsmanship has given me a personal taste of many analagous or parallel teachings, and I hope that this has enabled me to translate them and keep some precision in the meaning - most other translations of works by swordsmen, for all their other qualities, often fail to make distinctions that are quite important in the original works, and are vital for a proper understanding of the technique or concept the writer is trying to explain, often giving a plausible gloss, but missing the specifics.

Here is a quick rundown of the translated texts:

  The Mysterious Skills of the Old Cat (Neko no Myojutsu) by Issai Chozan: this has been translated several times before, and it's a long story as to why I included it, but it works well in the book as a kind of key to understanding the other works, which are amplifications and more detailed explanations of various facets of the the skills that are introduced in this story. If you are a bit uncertain of what you're going to be reading and whether it will be too deep for you, this will set out the general ideas for you.

  Sword Theory (Kensetsu) & A Treatise on the Sword (Kencho) by Hirayama Shiryu: I don't think Kensetsu has been translated at all into English beyond the first line, the uncompromising:

"My swordsmanship is for killing the enemy"

and although I later discovered that Cleary has translated some selections from Kencho, the complete work has not previously been published in English. I will have to write more about Hirayama when I get the chance - he was a formidable character, and these works present his ideas on swordsmanship very clearly - the second work consisting of annotated quotations from classics to give weight to the theories he presents in Kensetsu.

  Joseishi’s Discussions on the Sword (Joseishi Kendan) by Matsuura Seizan: I have written a little about Seizan before. This is one of several works he wrote on the sword, and is the most general of them. It is written as a series of unconnected notes and musings on different aspects of swordsmanship for the sake of students of the sword, it seems, which build up to give quite a clear picture of his view of the art. He was a retired daimyo, in fact, master of  a cadet branch of the Shingyoto-ryu. Only fragments of this work have been published in English before.

  Ignorance in Swordsmanship (Fushikihen) by Kimura Kyuho: this is another unpublished work (D.T. Suzuki includes fragments in Zen and Japanese Culture, taking the curious course of interpreting a clearly Neo-Confucian work as a Zen text). I found it very interesting - it takes the form of a dialogue between the writer's master and a visitor to the dojo, and how one should practice to attain  'real' swordsmanship. Although the language is philosophical in tone, the aim is the development of practical technique. Kimura was a master of the Unchu-ryu, which was originally based on use of the spear. Interestingly, Hirayama had also studied, and mastered Unchu-ryu, though a different but possibly related one.

I could say a lot more about it - as the author, I know it's not perfect, but I think  it offers some genuine, hard to find insights and will broaden your knowledge about traditional swordsmanship. The publisher is Tuttle, and it should be 'available at all good bookshops' as the saying goes - and hopefully some of the less good as well.

I'm sure it would make a great present, too.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Yagyu Renyasai and the Yagyu Tsuba

Miyamoto Musashi might be the best known, but he was not the only bugeisha who was intimately connected with the visual arts: Yagyu Renyasai (1625-94), headmaster of the Owari branch of the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, is well known for the the tsuba he produced as well as being a master swordsman. These are fairly well-known amongst sword (and tsuba) collectors, but martial artists seem less familiar with them, and there is very little written about them in English.

I first saw pictures of them in Dave Lowry's book, Autumn Lightning, which was also the first time I had really heard about the Shinkage Ryu. What struck me about them was the way in which they incorporated elements of the school's strategic principles into the design. Later, when my language ability had inched it's way up to a suitable level, they were one of the first things I researched in Japanese... greatly aided by a combination of pictures and short captions, I was just about able to make some sense of what I was reading.

The world of swords and their accoutrements is a large and complex one, particularly when it comes to appreciation and collecting, and my knowledge is admittedly slight. As seems to be common in many fields, there is a mixture of truth and story in the sword world, and ferreting out verifiable facts is not easy - it is quite common to repeat stories but they are not always substantiated.

As with many Japanese crafts, the making of tsuba was often a collaborative effort, and Renyasai employed skilled specialists at different stages of the operation. The basic tsuba were forged by a number of different smiths - among whom, it was said, was Kotetsu Gozaemon. The story goes that these rough pieces were placed in a rice mortar and Renyasai pounded them with a heavy mallet to test their durability. Those that survived unharmed progressed to the next stage, which involved working the designs into the metal, through a variety of drilling, cutting and filing processes. The designs themselves are also the subject of some uncertainty, though the best were traditionally all ascribed to the painter Kano Tanyu. An examination of the dates involved makes it unlikely he designed all of them, but it is possible that he designed some of them. The metalwork was performed by members of the Goto family. After they had been shaped, they would be tested again with, as the story goes, an axe. Those that passed were accepted, and were then patinated to give the desired finish.

 There are several points here that I'm not sure of - it seems that the Yagyu family has an album of tsuba designs which includes stories about them, several of which have become quite well known. There are some doubts as to their authenticity - the collaborations with Kotetsu, Kano Tanyu and the artisans of the Goto house have not been proven, and in fact, seem unlikely, though I have seen suggestions that Kano Tsunenobu, Tanyu's nephew, was involved in the design stage. The connection with the Goto house, who were, among other things, keepers of the Tokugawa mint, has actually been described as 'unthinkable'. Likewise, the picturesque story of Renyasai pounding tsuba in a rice mortar seems to originate from 19th century sources.

On the subject of mortar pounding, here is a short section written in the early 1900s, taken from Jim Gilbert's site on tsuba,

 "As to the mortar story. It is very doubtful, for what use was there in pounding them up? Is this the proper way to test a tsuba? There are certain methods in trying weapons, if one wishes spoil anything by rough usage. One might smash even a Myochin armor or a Bizen sword. To pound tsuba is the same. Mr. Yagyu is the man known as the best fencer and a clever man appointed by the 2nd or 3rd Shogun Tokugawa. If so he would not dare to play such a foolish game. This opinion must be taken from tradition of Yagyu people, or storytellers' jokes. Since I was a young man I have seen may thousands of tsuba, but only two or three with sword marks (kizu). So that we must think whether tsuba were struck by the sword in actual fight. In real fighting it is a question of a moment whether to kill or be killed. Why should one prefer to cut an arm rather than a head, which would not kill. After examining many blades a tsuba, not only with sword marks, almost no mark is seen on the habaki moto, but generally near the boshi. The mementos of the fighting period: Kamakura tsuba are very thin, Kanayama as well, especially the later ones have large piercings, which made them look very dangerous for real fighting, besides, the work of Kaneie I, Myoju, are thin, especially that of Myochin. Not only are they thin, but even made of shakudo, copper, or brass, and those soft metal tsuba are not thick. All these facts suffice to kill the story of pounding tsuba in a mortar. Some people might say that most of the tsuba made by armor makers are thick, that proves that they were made for defense. So that Yagyu's mortar trick was not so foolish. That opinion at first sound reasonable, but I can't agree with it, as my idea is that the thick heavy tsuba was intended to give weight to the hand, so as to give a greater strike (momentum) to the hand." 

Note that Akiyama was born in 1843 and was at age 9 named a page under lord Yamanouchi Yodo Toyonobu of Tosa. Akiyama was not only an authority on sword fittings, but also grew up wearing swords.

(originally from the early 1900's journal "Token Kai Shi" part four, Articles by Akiyama Kyusaku Translated by Henri L. Joly, Annotated by Robert E. Haynes)

I must say that although the tsuba is not meant to be used as a defense, it would require a particularly bold swordsman not to have one on his sword, although this was, in fact, the case with one of Uesugi Kenshin's swords. Yagyu tsuba are very sturdy in feel and appearance, and I am sure this reflected the practical value of swordsmanship. However, testing with an axe, although possible, would have left its mark on the metal, so this must be regarded as nothing but a story (or an isolated incident).

There also seems to be no reliable record of Renyasai's personal role in all of this - presumably he oversaw the process, offering opinion and suggesting changes, as Rikyu did with the artisans who worked for him. Whether or not he had a hand in the physical work is something we don't know - it is quite possible that he supplied rough designs which were worked up further by skilled artisans. As for the designs themselves, it has come to be accepted that they reflect aspects of Yagyu heiho, or martial arts, and I shall discuss this next.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Bird and Flower Painting in Nara

Kano Motonobu 1555

I was lucky enough to get to make a quick trip down to Nara a couple of weeks ago to pop in to the Nara Prefectural Museum.

The exhibition, Bird and Flower Painting in China, Korea and Japan, had been mounted as part of the 1300th anniversary celebrations of the founding of Heijo-kyo -present day Nara. In keeping with the importance that has been attached to this anniversary, the quality of the works on show was particularly good, and was maintained throughout the whole exhibition.

There were some famous works, and well-known names such as Seshu, Sotatsu and Jakuchu were represented by very good pieces. Particularly interesting were the pieces by Chinese and Korean painters - despite the fact that the roots of Japanese painting lie in Chinese works, it is not often that we get to see them, either in the flesh, or in reproduction, with their Japanese counter-parts, and I have never seen so many of them together. For the first time, I was able to compare pieces of a comparable level of execution from all 3 countries.

Following are a few notes and observations:

There were a few highlights for me - they were not necessarily the best pieces, but I found a special resonance in them. Increasingly, I find catalogue reproductions give so little of the feel of the actual pieces that they are of very little use for someone interested in the technical features of the paintings, as I am, save for jogging the memory about the general composition or look of the piece. usually the photos are too small to see much detail of the execution and subtleties of the pieces, and the chance to view so many good pieces in a a suitable environment is a real treat, and Nara Prefectural Museum does this well. Unlike Kyoto Prefectural Museum, sketching is allowed, light levels are resonable, and there are few enough people to be able to stand in front of a picture for a few minutes without you are in someone's way.

Like many exhibitions in Japan, this one had two halves. Usually, at major museums, a few of the major works are changed, sliding doors turned round, so they can display a larger number of works over the exhibition period. In this case, a glance at the catalogue showed barely more than half the pieces were on show at any one time. This is bad luck if you miss your favourites, but gives 2nd time visitors a new exhibition to see. I didn't mind - it seems that some of the pieces that I liked best weren't on show in the first half.

I must admit that I skipped fairly briefly past some of the paintings - as a painter myself, I am interested in execution, but some themes continually attract and hold my attention. Unlike my sister, I am not a flower painter, and although I admire them, they just don't do it for me. It's the ink landscapes and birds of prey that I find fascinating. In this case, just along the wall from some excellent sumi-e plum blossoms, was a folding screen by an unknown Japanese artist of the Muromachi period - a generation or two before Musashi, in fact. What struck me chiefly about this, as well as a rather nice, brooding bird sitting in a plum tree, was the delicacy of nuance applied to the bamboo at the left-hand edge of the screen.

A lot of ill-informed stuff has been written about ink painting, and a lot of poor stuff is produced these days - there seems to be the feeling that ink is thrown onto the paper in a kind of non-thinking Zen frenzy- once started, there is no going back. Careful examination of these paintings reveals the tracks of the brush - what is laid over what, and the extent to which lighter ink is used as a kind of under-painting which the darker lines follow (which is particularly evident in the work of Hakuin, Zen painter par-excellence).

This is visible in Sesshu - part of his mastery was his mastery of strokes - he applied exactly what was needed, without extraneous or wasted lines or emotional flourishes. Looking closely, you could see his darker outline strokes almost perfectly cover the lighter ink guidelines. Of course, he was following 'shita-e' or preparatory pictures that were often traced over, but this precision speaks of a very high degree of technical skill.

But my favourite paintings were the hawks - it seems there had been several different ones in the fist half of the exhibition, but these alone justified the visit for me.
Chinese painting of hawks - Yuan-Ming Dynasty

There were three paintings - two were Chinese scrolls, one of which was certainly the worse for wear, but both of very high quality, better than any Chinese ones I have seen before, and fully the equal of any Japanese ones I have seen of the same subject and one of which I have included here). Their style was perhaps a touch more naturalistic than most Japanese hawk paintings, which often include a touch of pleasing naivety in their works. the charm of their animals and birds is as much in their unreality as their realism (but which ceases when it falls into knowing abstraction). The screen of hawks was also a treat - the muted greys of the feathers were picked out with great subtlety and care. It was Japanese, and so it had some of this slightly stiff charm, which probably made it my favourite. What a pity the cataloge reproduction got the colour all wrong - it came out brown instead of grey.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Death of Saigo

A degree of doubt also surrounds the death of Saigo Takamori, a one-time confederate of Ryoma's, but arguably more important in historical terms. The questions are of quite a different kind - though his death was hardly less dramatic. He died leading an ill-fated rebellion, out-numbered, out-gunned, wounded, he took his own life , dignified and true to his principles until the last. At least, that is the story. Sounds just like Last Samurai, doesn't it...hardly surprising as that is who Watanabe Ken's character was based on. However, the facts point to a slightly different truth.

Mark Ravina, who wrote Saigo's biography (the only one in English, I believe) 'The Last Samurai', which despite the title is a well-researched volume, has recently published a scholarly article investigating the historiography of Saigo's death - that is to say, the way in which it has been depicted in art and writing, and how those depictions have gradually altered over time.

It is an interesting study, which shows how Saigo's death was written about and gradually embroidered for the various writers' own ends. This tendency was particularly strong during the first decades of the twentieth century. In the process, these fabrications became accepted as fact, and are often included unquestioningly in historical works (both Japanese and foreign).

Without going into detail here (Ravina does) although there are no eye-witness accounts to his death itself, there are reliable reports of those who saw his body after death, and it seems that a wound he sustained to the upper thigh/hip area made the dignified beheading (which later became a dignified seppuku) extremely unlikely - the lack of wounds denoting seppuku rule that out. As it says in the abstract, "Remarkably, historians have treated Saigo's suicide as an unproblematic account of his death, rather as a legend codified some four decades later." In fact Ravina feels that these stories should be viewed as another fiction, to rank along the stories of Saigo sailing to Russia or the illustrated accounts, such as the one here, that I just had to put in, as it was my first introduction to Saigo in any form.

The article, for those interested, is 'The Apocryphal Suicide of Saigo Takamori: Samurai, Seppuku, and the Politics of Legend', in The Journal of Asian Studies 69(3), August 2010.

It is scholarly and well-researched - an interesting read and a useful addition to Ravina's biography.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Death of Ryoma

Yesterday, November 15th, was the anniversary of the death of Sakamoto Ryoma. Here in Kyoto, there was a memorial service for Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro, who died with him, outside the convenience store (I believe.... it used to be a travel agent, but I haven't been past in a while) that now stands at the site of his death on Kawaramachi Street at the heart of the down-town shopping district.

Of course, the mystery of who actually killed him remains. Recent opinion seems to point to Katsura Hayanosuke (or Sonosuke) - it was his sword that was displayed as the murder weapon in the Ryoma-den exhibition here earlier in the year, and also the subject of this clipping I took way back in '94. He was a member of the Mimawarigumi, a para-military pro-Bakufu organization, as was Imai Nobuo, who actually claimed to have killed Ryoma. The catalogue has a chapter on the murder, explaining the course of events and, presumably, the arguments for Katsura but unfortunately time presses, and I don't have time to translate it now. I also remember there was a reconstruction of the event at the exhibition - fairly interesting, actually, but I didn't take note of the details, figuring it would all be in the catalogue.

With the NHK Taiga drama due to end in two weeks, it will be interesting to see their interpretation of the killing - no doubt it will reflect the same opinion as the exhibition - I'm looking forward to it, anyway.

Friday, 12 November 2010

The Last of the Yoshiokas II

This piece is a loose translation of a section of a book called “Miyamoto Musashi to iu Kengo”(The Swordsman Miyamoto Musashi) by Kōzō Kaku. If you have some experience reading Japanese essays, you may be familiar with the style – a mix of fact and opinion, rolled up in one and difficult to separate. On top of that, there is my translation, which includes a few clarifications, and you have a real mix. Despite that, it’s an interesting read, and offers some interesting insights on some tactical aspects of Seijiro’s fights.

There is not much written about this in English – John M. Rogers’ invaluable translation of the Honcho Bugei Shoden in Monumenta Nipponica and William Wilson’s The Lone Samurai (see his appendix) have about the only detailed information I could find, although this merely records Seijiro’s name as Kempo, leading to some confusion.

“According to the popular account, the Yoshioka school’s series of losses to (Miyamoto) Musashi were the chief cause of their decline and fall. The Yoshioka–den, however, paints quite a different picture: it was really the bravery of Yoshioka Genzaemon Naotsuna (Seijūrō) and his youngest brother, Seijirō, that ensured the fame of the Yoshioka family.

In the Kyoto-Osaka area, there was an expression, ‘hitsukoi’, a corruption of the common ‘shitsukoi’, which means annoyingly persistent or bloody-minded. It had distinctly negative connotations, which were even more pronounced in the related term ‘dobitsukoi’, which was formed by the addition of the prefix ‘do’, and referred to a habitual state of ‘hitsukoi’, as well as suggesting something of the sense of dread we attach to a word like ‘stalker’ nowadays. This was the term used to describe Yoshioka Seijirō.

In the Keicho period (1596-1615) the Yoshioka family was well-known in the city of Kyoto for their skill as swordsmen; so much so that their practice hall was widely known as the House of Kempo. However, it is said that people were wary of Yoshioka Seijirō and tended to keep their distance from him. He was one of the three sons of the third generation head, Yoshioka Naokata, with two older brothers who both excelled in swordsmanship (and fought Musashi, according to the popular version). According to one theory, he may actually have been the cousin of Naotsuna and Naoshige, but after his death, it was seen as more proper to refer to them as brothers.

There are many questions that remain unanswered about the Yoshioka School: it flourished from the time of the founder Naomoto down to the fourth generation Naotsuna, and then suddenly disappeared. It’s fame was greatly increased by the affair involving Seijirō, but this also proved to be a source of great trouble for the family.

Although Seijirō was Naokata’s son, there is no record of his posthumous name nor his succession. Of course, it is possible that he was still a child or an adopted child, but there is some likelihood that this was connected to his sullen disposition, which also served to trigger the affair. The fateful event took place on the 22nd day of the sixth month of 1614 (Keicho 19). That was the day that Toyotomi Hideyori, the young son of the late Taiko Hideyoshi, who held the rank of Minister of the Right, held a celebratory feast to mark the completion of the Great Buddha Hall in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto.

Although it seems surprising nowadays, there were times when commoners were allowed to visit the Imperial Palace, and it was said that crowds of townsfolk came to see Noh or Sarugaku performances.

In the Korō Chabanashi, it gives the date as the 11th day of the 6th month of the 16th year of Keicho, but this is slightly confusing as this doesn’t match the date of the completion of the Great Buddha. Similarly, in the Jozan Kidan it gives the date as Keicho 7, but Hideyori was given the rank of Minister of the Right in the 4th month of Keicho 10. If we take the date as the 22nd day of the 6th month of Keicho 19, which appears to be most likely, it was ten years after the contest between Musashi and the Yoshioka school.

A Disturbance at the Palace

That day, the accounts say, Seijirō joined the crowds making their way to watch the Noh performance, but it seems he wasn’t in a very good mood even before setting out. Most of the spectators had to stand to watch, and the jostling of the crowd would only have served as an extra irritation. In several writings there is mention of zoushiki, the attendants and porters of the Imperial archives and the retired emperor’s palace, one of whom, it is written, mistakenly hit Seijurō with the stick he was carrying.

In the Kourō Chabanashi it says that he was hit on the head, but it is difficult to believe that someone as skilled as Seijurō would allow himself to be struck like this by a palace attendant. Reading carefully, one can detect a feeling that the palace attendants would have had no very high opinion of a townsman who had gained prominence as a swordsman: the Yoshioka family were tradesmen, and their occupation, dyers, was not a particularly distinguished one. In any case, the attendant must have been careless – he was probably unaware of his sullen, headstrong nature, and banged into him with the cane he was carrying. If the attendant had apologised, the events that followed would probably never have taken such a fatal course. However, it seems likely that he either didn’t apologize or gave him an insulting look. Even if this was not the case, it is easy to imagine the attendant, who had most likely been drinking, raising his voice threateningly. Both parties probably exchanged a few words, with both of them giving as good as they got. Finally Seijirō must have lost patience and drawn his sword, attacking the man. He would have cut him down easily, all the more so if the attendant was drunk. With his sword still drawn he regained his composure, but the situation was not good. There were many people in the palace who had been watching the quarrel: instantly the attendant’s friends surrounded him.

The Fight

Seijirō remained unperturbed, typical of his obstinate nature. Taking care not to allow anyone to move round behind him, he slowly closed in on the opponents in front of him, though he had no intention of attacking straight-away. Rather than attacking, he was probably considering provoking their attacks so he could counter. There were a great number of opponents, and he was on his own, so it was important for him not to waste his strength.

Closing the distance can also serve as an invitation: it is almost certain that the enemy will be unsettled by such a manoeuver and take the bait. The strategy known as “go no sen” is relevant here. This teaches how to utilise waiting to your advantage. But there is more to it than this; it can be dangerous to advance. If you expose a blind spot, you will be vulnerable to a thrust from this quarter.

The tension Seijiro had created was too much – his assorted opponents began to attack.

According to one theory, Seijirō was using a short sword – when he was at distance from which he couldn’t cut, he would suddenly raise his sword revealing a momentary opening to the opponent with whom he was engaged; as the opponent attacked Seijirō took that opportunity to enter and cut his opponent down. According to the Honcho Bugei Shoden, he climbed onto the stage to get his breath, jumped down and cut, then mounted it again; when the enemy surged forward dangerously, he could jump down and strike again. Seijirō utilised the art of tengu jumping – reminiscent of Minamoto Yoshitsune’s hassō tobi, it certainly seemed to come from the Kyo-ryu, passed down from the tengu of Kurama.

A number of Yoshioka students saw what was happening from afar, but nobody moved to help Seijirō. It’s true that they needn’t have interceded in the scuffle, but why did they look on passively? That was probably because they put so much trust in his skill and sheer bloody-mindedness.

Here comes the fuzz

The chief magistrate of Kyoto (Shoshidai), Itakura Katsushige, Lord of Iga, was informed immediately of the disturbance in the Imperial Palace. It was his job to deal with it. According to the Jozan Kidan, Katsushige took a naginata and faced Seijirō himself - however, this can be put down to exaggeration. It would have been highly unlikely for Kazushige, who was then in his 60s, to undertake something like this himself. The versions in which he sends his vassal, Ota Chuubei, seem far more probable. Chuubei, whose personal name was Kaneuji, was also known as Ryukage. He came from Hanawa-mura in Omi-kuni (present day Shiga Prefecture), and was skilled in the Yagyu Shinkage ryu. So, Seijirō, with an art directly transmitted from the Kyo ryu, itself descended from the Shinto ryu, would be facing Chuubei, who was skilled in one of the three great streams of swordsmanship, the Kage ryu. And it was not just the Kage ryu, but the extremely polished Yagyu Shinkage ryu that would be contrasted to the art of the, as yet undefeated, Yoshioka ryu – it was definitely something worth seeing.

As far as skill was concerned, both men were on a par. It was impossible to predict the winner. However, when they crossed swords, somehow, from the impact, Seijirō slipped. In the Honcho Bugei Shoden it says the cords of his hakama had come undone causing him to stumble and fall. If we check the Gekiken Sodan, it notes that he fell face upwards. Chuubei then spoke, “Striking a fallen foe is shameful for a bushi. Stand, and we will fight in the normal way.”

Seijirō took these words at face value. No sooner had he heard them than he began to rise. While he was doing so, Chuubei cut him down with a single blow. Those watching praised Chuubei for cutting down his opponent as he rose, but afterward his master, on the recounting of the victory, asked whether he should be proud of killing a fallen foe. With a faint smile, Chuubei replied, “In a situation like this, if you try to cut a fallen oponent, you will be opening yourself, and it is you who will be cut instead. Even when lying down, there is kyo and jitsu. When he was on the ground, Yoshioka may have been kyo or, then again, he may have been jitsu, but in any case, he was not an opponent it would have been easy to cut. While lying on the ground, he may have looked kyo, trying to defend himself, but it seemed that in the next instant he could have cut me as I drew close (jitsu). But whether it is really kyo or jitsu, it is not as if a fallen foe cannot regain his feet. Indeed, it is just at this moment that he is really in a defenceless kyo state. It was this that I was relying on when I struck him down.

The effects of Seijirō’s death

(As the Honcho Bugei Shoden notes, the magistrate Itakura Katsushige decided to take no action against the Yoshioka family because of the restraint they showed during Seijiro’s fight – which seems rather unusual). Seijirō was not head of the family, but if his name was so well known, word went around that the head of the family must be really skilled indeed, and the fame of the Yoshioka ryu echoed around the whole country. The quiet city of Kyoto was in shock … and the Yoshioka family, with its connections to the shogunal house of Ashikaga, came under the close scrutiny of the Tokugawa Bakufu. They were probably under extreme pressure. In the 10th month of that year, on the advice of one of their relatives, Mishuku Masatomo (1566-1615), Lord of Echizen, the Yoshioka family took part in the Winter Seige of Osaka, on the Toyotomi side. There is a theory that, when peace was declared, they took down their shingle, and abandoned the martial arts. After the war, based in the Nishinotoin Shijo-sagaru area, they learned kurocha dying from the Chinese Li San Kan to create what was known as nanban kurozome. The founder of this dyeing wasn’t Naotsuna (i.e. Seijūrō) but Naoshige (Denshichirō), it is said. They specialized in the business of dyeing, building up their fortune through their speciality Yoshioka-zome and kenpo-zome. (I must admit there are several inconsistencies in the way these accounts have been meshed, but I’ll let them pass).

The Yoshioka school of swordsmanship still just managed to survive, according to one account: in the Mukashi Banashi, a journal written by a warrior of the Owari domain, Chikamatsu Shigenori, it mentions that there were records of an adept by the name of Yoshioka Kahei in later years, who showed some of the secrets of the Yoshioka school to the Lord of Owari.”

Just to add to the confusion of names, the picture is Utagawa Kuniyoshi's print of Yoshioka Kanefusa.The picture clearly depicts Seijirō's battle at the Palace, but Kanefusa is also the name given, in some accounts, to Seijū, who fought Musashi. It comes from the wonderful Kuniyoshi Project.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Last of the Yoshiokas

The story of Miyamoto Musashi, as recounted in Yoshikawa Eiji's novel and countless versions since then has an instantly recognizable story, with episodic duels marking stages in his training and development. One of these, of course, is with the Yoshioka school of swordsmen in Kyoto.

Musashi comes to Kyoto, challenges the present head of the family that his father had once fought, beats him, then beats his brother in a follow-up duel, and, in the morning mists at Ichijoji (the title of this blog!) has to fight his way through the whole Yoshioka school, killing the 10(?) year-old titular challenger, and making his escape over the fields towards Mt. Hiei. Their principle members beaten or dead, the school collapsed shortly thereafter.

Although the story is based on historical records, there are also conflicting accounts, principally from the Yoshioka-den, the family record. As early as 1714, in the Honcho Bugei Shoden, there are several varying accounts of the meeting - the author noted that he just wrote them all rather than trying to sort out the veracity of their claims.

Rather than examine this series of incidents themselves, I want to look a little more closely at another incident - one that seems to bear a more direct relation to the demise of the family as teachers of the sword.

The Yoshioka Family
To make things a little easier to understand, I will just give a brief guide to the principal members of the family - they are quite easy to confuse, and sorting through the various accounts available in English (and Japanese) can be quite confusing because of the similarity in names.

For a start, the founder of the family sword tradition was known as Yoshioka Kenbo, although this is often read as Kenpo in the modern reading. Confusingly, the title Kenbo was passed down to the head of the family, so Musashi also fought a Yoshioka Kenbo, and another member of the family (who we will come onto later) is referred to in the Honcho Bugei Shoden by the same name - and a confusing entry on Wikipedia doesn't help things.

Of course, they had other names, which are also a little difficult to get straight as they all start with the character 直 (Nao). And as officianados of the Musashi story know, the brothers he fought were called Seijūrō and Denshichirō (and also had Nao appellations as well).

Here is a list of the main characters in our story:
Yoshioka Kenbo Naomoto : the founder
Yoshioka Kenbo Naomitsu : the founder's brother
Yoshioka Kenbo Matasaburo Naokata: he fought Musashi's father, Munisai

The following are three brothers, and sons of Naokage:
Yoshioka Kenbo Naotsuna (Seijūrō): fought Musashi
Yoshioka Mataichi Naoshige (Denshichirō): fought Musashi
Yoshioka Seijirō Shigekata: also referred to as Kenbo in Honcho Bugei Shoden

Yoshioka Matashichirō: Naotsuna's young son slain by Musashi at Ichijoji.

I hope you noticed the names of the two brothers Naotsuna and Shigekata, Seijūrō (清十郎) and Seijirō (清次郎).
The next part is where things get interesting...

The picture is from Inoue Takehiko's Vagabond - The Yoshioka swordsmen waiting for Musashi at Ichijoji.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Time to get moving

Time is a vital element in strategy.

I was reminded of this the other day when I was reading Fukuzawa Yukichi's autobiography - he mentions an unsuccessful attempt on his life during the tumultuous years of the bakumatsu period (1860s), when he had returned to his home domain to bring his mother to Edo where he was living. Xenophobic forces were strong, and as he worked as a translator for the government, he was seen as a suitable target for assassination by the young hotheads of the domain. Fortunately, his would be assassins spent so long arguing over who was to actually kill him, that he and his mother, both unaware of the danger, were gone by the time the attackers reached the inn where they had been staying. (Fukuzawa wryly notes that the precautions he took to preserve his life were never directly used, while he didn't realise he was in danger the times his life was really threatened).

A similar incident occurs in the Heike Monogatari, the account of the fall of the Taira clan in the 12th century. Prince Mochihito, supported by the monks of Miidera, just on the other side of the mountains to the east of Kyoto, are planning a night attack on the Taira mansion in the city. Of course, surprise is of the essence, but they take so long planning the thing that it's almost morning by the time they are ready to set off and the whole thing has to be called off.

It had a very familiar ring to it, which I think must have come from early exposure to Tolkien's use of the same idea in The Hobbit, when Gandalf gets the trolls fighting till daybreak and they are turned to stone.

But literature aside, the ability to make decisions and get things moving is a key factor in all kinds of strategic endeavors. A notable example in the military field is Alexander the Great, who was particularly good at this - much of his success was based on his ability to move faster, and more directly than his opponents, and not just when he was faced by the unwieldy Persian war machine. His early campaigns on the Danube are excellent examples of this.

More recently, the German blitzkrieg in WWII was predicated on constant forward motion - Rommel, for example, noted that his favoured form of reconnaissance was attack. Boyd's OODA loop also touches on this, and the more I go on, the more examples come to mind.

Perhaps the reason why it is so important is that people have a tendency to over-consider their choices before making a move - when we act, our move will change the situation so the choices we spent time considering may no longer exist. The ability to think or act on the fly gives a strong advantage to those who can do it, but ill-considered moves against a strong opponent can prove disastrous. Experience and real skill make all the difference.

But even in everyday life, the ability to move from one activity to another, to act 'immediately' after deciding, is a real boon (and not always my strong point, I admit). The ways in which this don't happen are numerous, and correct timing is also a vital consideration - sometimes you have to wait and pick your moment - but on the whole, it gives you an immense advantage to be able to do things fast.
Illustration: The Tale of Heike Illustrated Scroll, Edo period, Okayama Art Museum

Friday, 29 October 2010

Sakurada Mongai no Hen - The Sakurada Gate Incident

This is a very different film from the 13 Assassins - as the title might indicate, although it sounds more impressive in Japanese, and it too involves an attack on an unpopular feudal lord by a bunch of political dissidents.

This time, however, it based on a real event and its aftermath - the assassination of the minister (Tairo) Ii Naosuke, in 1860, in which the action plays a relatively small but important role. More realistic than 13 Assassins, I have to say that it was not nearly so exciting. Perhaps not surprisingly, as it is a drama, rather than 'chanbara'. It is the story of hopes and subsequent disillusionment as the 'great act' proves to have far less impact than was hoped, and the plotters gradually see their plans fall apart, promises broken and treachery from their friends as the government closes in on them. As with other films that have portrayed the incident, the overall mood is far from positive, which contrasts quite strongly with those that deal with other themes from roughly the same period such as the Shinsengumi or Saigo Takamori.

Although this sounds like a recipe for for an interesting film, I can't whole-heartedly say that it was. Part of the trouble is that the story didn't really hold together in a single narrative - it seemed like a series of vignettes, arranged roughly chronologically with terse and possibly meaningful dialogue vaguely related to the narrative stream. Transitions were handled with narration and on-screen text that proved a bit of a challenge to my Japanese (one of the problems with historical dramas, even if your Japanese is at a reasonable level) - and many of the character were likewise introduced by on-screen text. With subtitles, it would be considerably easier to follow, but even so, not an easy film to watch.

It was good on portraying the stultifying and dangerous atmosphere of the times - the set dressing was, once again, very accurate, and the fight scenes, especially the attack on the palanquin, gave an exceptionally clear impression of how bloody, brutal and downright dangerous sword combat can be. This is another movie with a large amount of blood letting - justified, but not for the weak of stomach.

Strangely, although I caught myself yawning once or twice, it has stayed with me more strongly than 13 Assassins - there is definitely something here that is worth seeing, but I hesitate to recommend it unless you are a die hard fan of this kind of thing. If 13 Assassins was a kind of Seven Samurai, this is far closer to something like Mizoguchi's Chushingura.

Lastly, for sword buffs, an added point of interest is that the main character, Seki Tetsunosuke, (and at least one of the minor ones) studied Kashima Shin Ryu kenjutsu under Kunii Kyûuemon. And you get to see him in a duel, too.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

13 Assassins

Well, I saw Takashi Miike's Jusan-nin no Shikaku, or '13 Assassins' which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, and found it very rewarding. I would thoroughly recommend it, but also note that it is not for those who don't like violence.

A good cast, with some very well-known Japanese actors, and visually very impressive, not only in the action sequences, but also in the rich and authentic interiors and the lush countryside. Taking a leaf out of Kurosawa's book, there is plenty of rain and mud, but unlike him, blood, too. The atmosphere is established in the opening scenes and remains brooding and heavy throughout - though not without some light relief which is deftly handled, and which never slips into the realm of comedy that some directors seem unable to resist.

I glanced through some of the reviews in the western press (from the Venice film Festival etc), and although it was widely praised, I think the reviewers either did not see the full version, or have become inured to graphic and disturbing violence.

And the violence was, or at least should have been, disturbing - not the fights, which were plentiful and violent, of course, but the casual cruelty of the villainous lord (played by Goro of Smap - and a nice job he did, too). Japanese censors (and audiences) have always been more tolerant of graphic violence in films, and this is a good example. I don't expect it to pass the British or American censors without some serious cuts, and I would certainly not recommend it to anyone who is upset by violence. But at the same time, I wouldn't call the violence gratuitous, but it certainly is graphic. Japanese auteurs are fond of saying that this graphic depiction of violence is meant to bring home its horror, rather than glorify it. In this case it may succeed, especially in establishing the sadism and borderline sanity of the lord who becomes the object of the assassination attempt.

For anyone interested in swordsmanship, the battle scenes will probably be a treat. The swordplay is much better than in the original version (from what I remember) and there is plenty of it. This film keeps within the bounds of the possible, while fully playing up the heroics of the band of assassins. The battle is certainly long enough for most people's tastes - 50 minutes or so, but thoroughly enjoyable, if one can say that about so much blood, pain, madness and death.

In short, it may become a new classic of the genre - and I'm sure it would, if not for the violence. Certainly a more rewarding experience than The Last Samurai, and more action based than Tasogare Seibei etc. - go and see it if you have the chance.

And tomorrow I'm off to see Sakurada Mongai no Hen...!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Unconventional Strategy

I first read about this ploy in Walter Mosley's "Devil in a Blue Dress", but recently came across an account of it being used in reality rather than fiction.

The fictional account concerns Mouse, Eazy Rawlins' psychopathic friend (and an excellent character in his own right) and his killing of his step-brother, Navrochet. Figuring that he had come in the bar looking to kill him, Mouse had taken note of Navrochet's expensive boots and already opened his fly. When he was taken outside, and a gun put against his head, he played scared and then urinated on his step-brother's boots. Not surprisingly, but unwisely, Navrochet jumped back and was dead before he hit the ground, bullets courtesy of Mouse.

I came across the real-life incident in the memoirs of Fukuzawa Yukichi, the founder of Keio University, and whose face graces the 10,000 yen bill. Not a fighter himself, one of his colleagues in the early days of the Meiji Restoration, Wada Yoshiro, was an expert in jujitsu, and well able to take on several men by himself. Like Fukuzawa, he thought wearing swords in those 'modern' times was outdated. One night, walking home with a group of friends, their way was blocked by a band of local toughs wearing swords and swaggering along the street towards them. Wada strode along the middle of the street towards them, starting to piss as he walked along. Although the situation was tense, the toughs moved out of his way and trouble was averted.

Portrait of Fukuzawa Yukichi by Matsumaro Kikutaro Keio Daigaku

Monday, 18 October 2010

What Plot is This?

It is harvest time in Kyoto now - the views of the fields have probably changed little for hundreds of years. One of the most characteristic sights are the higanbana (higan refers to the Autumn equinox; hana/bana is flower - spiderlily in English) which sprout up overnight by the sides of the fields from early September onwards.

This is a poem I translated several years ago, working with the author, Melvin Wong, to translate a rather thick volume of his work. I was pleased to have the opportunity to work with him on these evocative poems - this is one I particularly liked for its mix of the real and the fantastic - it seems a throwback to some dark happening in the past. Although they were never published, I still rather like them.

Rice Field
The autumn light unhesitatingly
Switched the waving rice
From the green of summer to its own yellow-brown.
With the turn of seasons,
Nothing is forgotten, it seems.
Like roaring flames come the red flowers.
The fresh blood of jealousy erupts
From the multitude of buried dead.
What kind of plot is this?
In a single night
In all the fields around,
The rice,
Before its day of execution,
Is bent before the violence of the coming storm
Blowing ever more strongly.
At the end of the day - no harvesting
And fear increasing all the more -
An eerie sunset

Melvin Wong (Chris Hellman Trans.)

Photo courtesy of Japundit Blog

Monday, 11 October 2010

Swords on the Screen

There are a couple of interesting looking movies out this month. Both of them are somewhat similar in theme, but very different in treatment. The first is Jusan-nin no Shikaku (13 Assassins). It is a remake of Kudo Eiichi 's 1963 film staring Kataoka Chiezo. The original was great for atmosphere, but a bit disappointing in the sword wielding department. This becomes more understandable if you look more closely at his background - he was a rebel who, together with a number of other directors of the time, sought to criticize the samurai culture, using it as a mirror for their own rebellious times. (See Kudo Eiichi for more details.) And so the action is unglamorous and chaotic. Miike Takashi, who directs the new version, is known for the extreme violence in his movies - it seems this will be extreme action at least, but I don't expect much of a sub-text.

The story concerns the thoroughly vile Lord Matsudaira who is given to rape and murder, and effectively stands above the law, as the brother of the shogun. A small group of upstanding samurai decide that something must be done, and decide to assassinate him on his way back from Edo. They convert a vilage on the route into a death-trap and the battle begins. The subtitle for the new version is something like '13 against 300' - it seems that the last hour or so is given over to the ambush. Sounds like fun.

The second offering is a bit more serious and based on a historical incident: Sakurada Mongai no Hen (The Sakurada Gate Incident) of 1860, but it also involves the way-laying and assassination of a high ranking lord, the dictatorial official, Ii Naosuke. It centres on the participants, rather than the action itself, and looks to be a more thoughtful piece of film-making than '13 Assassins'. It is based on the novel by Yoshimura Akira, a well-known writer with a somewhat grim but insightful style. It definitely seems worth seeing.