Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Deeper Reading of Musashi's Painting

I always say, if anyone asks me, that in order to appreciate art, you should try and see work in the flesh. It took me quite a while to come to this conclusion, until after my time at university anyway, when I started travelling to a few different countries and seeing what had, until then, been simply pictures in a book. The difference is startling - some works really grew in stature, others diminished. The most disappointing are those which look exactly like their reproductions. You wonder why you bothered to come to a museum to see them. Then there is the problem of over familiarity. If you have stared at an image for long enough, it can sometimes be quite difficult to see anything new in it.  There are also certain venues which add an incredible amount to the whole experience.

Of course, this is not limited to any one genre or regional style of art, and I dare say that every type benefits in its own way.

Japanese sumi-e painting benefits immensely from seeing it for real. It has its own atmosphere and sense of physicality which rarely comes across in reproductions. Although it's only ink on paper, it has texture and three-dimensionality (which is occasionally lacking in heavily restored works where the original paper is little more than a thin veneer on the backing paper).

One of Hakuin's
gibbons. It's not really
possible to tell from this
if the arms were painted in
one stroke or not.

One aspect I find particularly interesting is seeing the way the artist used the brush. It is not all that difficult, once you are tuned into it, to see the different kinds of strokes, and find where the stroke was broken or paused, and which strokes were laid over which. naturally, this has far greater relevance if you are practicing the same kind of art yourself.

Sumi-e suffers from a fair amount of nonsense being written about it. Perhaps most common is the idea of a single stroke. This is very far from the truth. Even (or perhaps especially?) an old Zen hand such as Hakuin often painted in pale ink before going over it in darker, stronger strokes, and the longer strokes are usually made up of a series of smaller ones. In one of his paintings of the monkey reaching for the moon which I saw recently, the long arms of the gibbon were each clearly painted in several strokes.

The same is true of Musashi's paintings. I was lucky enough to see his triptych of Bodhidarma flanked by a couple of ducks at an exhibition of the Matsui Collection just over a week ago. They are striking paintings, and if you let your mind wander over the possibilities, I think it is very likely that Musashi was  playing some quite complex visual games. Many painters, especially those towards the literati end of the spectrum included layers of meaning and reference in their work. Some of these were symbolic, while others were connected with the technical means employed by an artist within a work.

The type of stroke an artist uses - wet or dry, for example - can be linked to the subject. A wet stroke might be suggestive of spring or summer, while dry one might be used to indicate autumn or winter. Although the idea is simple, the nuances can be extremely sophisticated and are often linked to a deeper awareness of the subject, especially in further cultural and literary references. Likewise, a broader, wetter stroke can indicate ease and fullness, while a drier one suggests astringency and sensitivity. Some of this is aesthetic, but some of it is linked to an appreciation of the physical qualities, especially those concerning fluidity, of the medium.

In the case of Musashi's ducks, several of these kinds of references can be observed. It it exhibits the tensile, energetic strength so characteristic of his mature work, while using the brush and ink in several distinct ways.

Looking at the composition of the picture, there is a dynamic contrast between the tall figure of Daruma, and the ducks who are low down, close to the water-line. Daruma is painted as light and insubstantial (as befits someone balancing on a floating reed), his robes swirling around an empty centre, while the ducks are solid and assured in their duckiness. Wet, as well, which also suits their affinity to the water; and while they look happy, Daruma is all scowls and worry, his life's work many years from completion.

And these ducks are supposed to look happy - the one on the right features in another painting, together with the following verse:

It's soaring flight
The duck
Delights in the ripples
Of a mountain stream.

It is hard not to see evidence of a personal comment on Musashi's life in this work. He had, after all, finally settled down in a position of relative ease and favour as a guest of Lord Hosokawa Tadatoshi in Kumamoto after a life of hard work and wandering. Perhaps he saw himself as being in the same position as the ducks, thoughts of his former life forgotten, perfectly adapted to his new role. At the same time, a student of the bugei, not to mention someone who had gained such a degree of mastery as Musashi, is inevitably marked by the long years of hard training. That hard seriousness is not negotiable - it is part of the personality that training has forged.

Although it may not be possible to offer a precise interpretation with any assurance of its accuracy, I think it is safe to say that the paintings are concerned with these issues, and thus help us to see deeper into the character of this man than his most famous work, the sharp-eyed shrike, will allow.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Ichimei - Death of a Samurai

At last I made it to the cinema to see Ichimei - I had been meaning to go ever since it was released. After 13 Assassins, I was expecting good things from Miike, the director. This was another remake of a film from the 60s, and one which, like 13 Assassins, contained an overt political element in its criticism of the arbitrary powers of the feudal system, an obvious reference to Japanese society at the time the films were made. Much has changed since then, not least, the abandonment of overt political activism, but there is still an acknowledgement of the power of circumstances to lay low the honest, hardworking everyman, and this is the theme that Miike chose to expand upon.

Visually, it was very impressive - particularly the set dressing. Part of this must have been calculated to maximise the effect of the 3d filming, although I only saw the standard version. The acting was uniformly good - Ebizo, a well-known kabuki actor, who took the lead role (played by Nakadai Tatsuya in the 60s version) often shows a tendency towards the melodramatic, but he managed to keep it largely under control in this film.

Had I not seen the original, I might not have noticed what was missing - but I had, and so I was a little dissappointed at the route Miike took to differentiate his work from its predecessor. He chose to emphasise the powerlessness of the characters and the corresponding pain of their situations, rather than the evil of the system or the power of Hanshiro to control events as he orchestrates the final showdown, both aspects which were given far more play in the original.

As far as I was concerned, the core of the original was the give and take of the confrontation in the courtyard. The way in which Hanshiro gradually maneuvers his opponents, the vignettes involving the three principle villains, and the climactic battle itself, all show the skills of a man pitting himself to the extent of his powers against the monolith of authority - although he is destined to lose the unequal fight, the spirit of his challenge reaffirms our sense of human courage and dignity. In Miike's version, though Hanshiro also displays these attributes, he is not striving for victory, or even revenge, but merely to have his story told. Although this may, ultimately, be the more humane course, he seems somehow diminished compared to Nakadai's portrayal, as if he has already accepted his defeat, and nothing more remains than to see things through to the end.

I would have preferred him to 'Rage, rage against the dying of the light' - and perhaps this is, in itself, more a reflection of the times: although we may dislike aspects of 'The System', the alternative has been revealed to us as something worse. Perhaps, in fact, there is comfort in not wrecking the major institutions of society, but just demanding some recognition of our human place in the drama. In Japan, this is much more visible - the spirit of the sixties was largely quashed, and people got back to the task of finding their place in the society as it existed, rather than seeking to change it. Success stories of rebels are far less common here than in Britain or the USA - Ebizo's Hanshiro has no thought of fighting the clan - he is just expressing his grievances, and the only people who should suffer are the ones directly involved. Nakadai's Hanshiro, in contrast, had declared war - the only question was how far he could go.

For all that, Ichimei - Death of a Samurai - is certainly worth seeing, but its not half as satisfying as 13 Assassins.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Momiji - Autumn Leaves and their symbolism

This is the season of momiji or koyo - the brilliant autumn leaves of the maples.

It is one of the principal images of autumn in Japan - appearing in plays, poems and paintings. In fact now is the peak of the maple leaf viewing season in Kyoto - the popular sites are heaving with crowds of tourists engaged in momijigari - maple leaf hunting.

Momiji Uchi - The red leaves cut
Those interested in swordsmanship will probably be aware of its use in Miyamoto Musashi's Gorin no Sho - in the Water chapter is a section describing the Red Leaves Cut. As noted by Victor Harris in his translation, "Presumably Musashi is alluding here to falling, dying leaves." As the technique refers to knocking down the enemy's sword, knocking it out of his hands in fact, this seems very likely.

It seems that Musashi was not the only person to use this term to denote a technique. According to the respected researcher and historian Watatani Kiyoshi, it was used in the Kyo-hachi-ryu... a term that is generally thought to refer to the 8 principle schools taught in the Kyoto area during the Muromachi period, and probably including the Yoshioka school, which, as we know, Musashi and his father both had dealings with. In fact, Watatani identifies it as being specific to the Kyoto area - as Musashi spent some time in the city, this makes it quite likely that he adopted a term already in use.

This is fairly common practice - many schools share terms for similar and sometimes quite different techniques. Some of these clearly share a common origin, while in others, the connection is not so clear.
However, the common name suggests the possibility that the name itself shared a common referent, and possibly included an additional layer of symbolism.

Momiji Kasane - the art of layering

For us, the connotation of autumn leaves might very well be that they will fall from the trees - my image of autumn leaves strongly features piles of them lying on the ground. In Japan, I have the feeling that the primary image is of them being on the trees. The striking colours of their foliage are best seen before they fall, and artistic and poetic images consistently depict them in this way. Indeed, they are far more arresting, and the eye barely glances at the dried, fallen leaves on the ground while the bright reds, oranges and yellows are still on the trees.
Momiji-gasane... the colours are pretty close
to the photo at the top of the page
This was reflected in their use as a symbol for layering. A prime example of this is the multiple layers of kimono that were worn by women in the court. These had a variety of names, depending on the colour combinations, but several of them were referred to by the term momiji gasane.

This term is also used in Heki-ryu kyudo, where it refers to the te no uchi or grip of the left hand, which holds the bow. More specifically, it refers to the way the grip is formed, with the fingers layered on top of each other, moving independently to form the ideal grip (presumeably combining strength and pliability). Interestingly, this school also had its roots in Kyoto, so it is possible that it shares the meaning of the term with sword schools.
Forming the grip - momiji kasane - in Kyudo.
From the Il bersaglio di paglia blog (which is well-worth
checking out, if you have even the slightest interest in kyudo).

This suggests the possibility that the use of momiji in sword teachings may have an additional meaning, beyond that of knocking the sword down - it could refer to the way the sword is 'layered' on top of the opponent's weapon in the same way that the beauty of the autumn leaves is enhanced by the layers of different colours.

Then again, I may be grasping at straws, but even so, I was struck by the use of the same symbol in several different ryu.

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Confucian Swordsman II

Confucius, from the recent film of the same name

It's difficult to generalise about neo-Confucian writings on the sword - they need to be read, and then pondered over. Their rationalist approach has a certain clarity, but it also demands some work on the part of the reader - all the more so as the idiom in which they are written is unlikely to be familiar to most readers nowadays.

Part of the difficulty lies in the use of terms in unfamiliar ways: 'principle', 'virtue' and 'filial piety' are all terms we recognise, but they also seem strangely out of place in a work about swordsmanship. Obviously there is a moral dimension to learning and teaching martial arts, but it has become almost second nature to reject formulations that promise success to the virtuous and doom for the unjust as unrealistic.

For these to make sense, the reader has to be able to perceive the way they correlate to the practical concerns of sword use. The ability to do this is partly dependent upon ones own experience in these arts, but this is part of what makes the writing valuable.

Fact or Fantasy?
The danger of this approach is that it can fall in to the trap of wish-fulfilment or creative imagination, somewhat in the manner in which authors have taken famous Chinese/Japanese texts, comparing and combining various translations of the originals to give new versions, supposedly more relevant 'for our times'. While there may be some merit in this approach, I doubt it gets us any closer to the meaning of the originals, which is what interests me.

The neo-Confucian texts were not meant to be coded, secretive works which would reveal their knowledge only to chosen initiates (and even Yagyu Munenori's Heihokadensho, which has a good deal of neo-Confucian content as well as the more often noted Zen aspects, makes a point of pointing out which terms are coded) - they were meant for a far wider readership. This means they should be accessible to readers today.

This, in turn, requires a little knowledge of the conventions of the genre. Some of the works are fairly self-explanatory, (e.g. Joseishi Kendan) while others use terms that were actually key concepts in a wider discourse, and thus have additional connotations which might not be immediately obvious.

Filial Piety
The latitude allowed for interpretation of these concepts can be found in the writings of some of the major thinkers of neo-Confucianism in both China and Japan. A good example is ‘filial piety’ – certainly a concept that seems more at home in a moral text than one about swordsmanship. When a writer says something like:

You should simply adopt an underlying attitude of loyalty and filial respect.  - Kimura Kyuho

are we justified in applying it in a wider context? One of the early figures of Japanese neo-Confucianism, Nakae Toju (1608-1648), had this to say about it:

What gives birth to Heaven, to earth, to human existence, and to all things is nothing but this filial piety.
Nakae Toju

(Even as basic an education as those offered in the village school, the terakoya, taught: “…it is the beginning of filial piety to take care and preserve yourself from injury.”)

Clearly it means more than just taking care of your parents – in the abstract, it is a statement of relationships. Seeing it in such broad terms enables us to apply this kind of reading to these works across the board.

Interestingly, there have been some voices in the field of Confucian studies (e.g. Robert Eno) that recognise that earlier Confucian writers (Confucius and Mencius, for example) were referring to something like this in their writings - 'right' was a psycho-physical state as much as an ethical construct. the insistence on the importance of doing things the right way was to entrain this state, rather than to enforce conformity.

Wild beasts
Another concept that appears intermittently, and somewhat confusingly, is that of ‘wild beasts’. It can be found both in Tengu Geijutsuron and Kenjutsu Fushikihen, as well as the Kenpo Sekiun Sensei Soden, written by Odagiri Ichiun and seems somewhat out of place – it is used as a pejorative term for those schools of swordsmanship that emphasise techniques - until we realize that it was a metaphor used to describe those who engaged in all manner of activities without regard to ri. Of course, this has a moral dimension, but it also allows a practical interpretation to the term, depending on how we interpret ri in swordsmanship.

And in English…?
Although there were many, many works in the Japanese martial tradition that were shaped by the currents of neo-Confucian thought, very few are accessible to the English reading public. (It must also be said, that they have received, on the whole, little sustained interest in Japan, either… at least in recent years.)

For the interested reader, I recommend Tengu Geijutsuron, translated by W.S. Wilson in The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts, and Joseishi Kendan and Kenjutsu Fushiki Hen, both of which are in my The Samurai Mind. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t regard Tengu Geijutsuron as terribly authoritative in the deeper areas of sword practice, but it does provide a philosophical justification of bugei practice along neo-Confucian lines. Kenjutsu Fushiki Hen provides a rebuttal to some of the points in Tengu Geijutsuron, and is written with knowledge of the earlier work. It is, importantly, claiming to represent authentic teachings of a swordmaster, and is thus a sort of companion to Tengu Geijutsuron – they both touch on many of the same points and the authors appear to have had a similar grounding in neo-Confucianism, though we do not know the extent of their learning.
Minagawa Kien

We are on firmer ground with Matsura Seizan, the writer of Joseishi Kendan. Seizan was the student of a well-known Confucian scholar, Minagawa Kien, and was himself known as a scholar as well as a swordsman. He embodied many aspects of neo-Confucian ideals in himself and his writing. Rather than explain a theory of how swordsmanship can embody the universal principle, he display in his writing several of the over-riding concerns of his schools of thought, such as education and the doctrine of kakubutsu chichi – the importance of investigating diverse areas to gain a greater understanding of the way in which the universal principle underlies everything.

His work includes passages on numerous aspects of daily life which he ties in to the discipline of swordsmanship. Though this might at first glance seem to be merely an intellectual exercise knowing that he was also a master of the sword requires us to assess it in a new light. The no-nonsense advice he gives further reinforces this – where he does directly refer to Confucianism, the impression he gives is very far from the empty theorizing of an armchair swordsman – which criticism is often leveled at Confucians, either explicitly or by implication.

There are also, as I mentioned above, neo-Confucian currents in Yagyu Munenori’s Heihokadensho, which has been translated by both Thomas Cleary and Wilson. It is an interesting exercise to read it with an eye to these, rather than the more often noted Zen aspects.

An underlying theory
Finally, neo-Confucian thinking gives us a theoretical justification for the study of martial arts: this is ri, the underlying principle (of life, the universe and everything). Because it is underlying, it is also connecting – the search and discovery of it in one area can affect our performance in other areas because they all share the same principles. This became a powerful (though unstated) component of the modern budo disciplines, and provides, at some level, an answer to the question, “How does this discipline make me a better person?”

Perhaps this is what separates this school of thought from other theoretical currents that informed the bugei. Neo-Confucianism is fundamentally concerned with life, with being a part of society, and pursuing one’s way within these boundaries. And that’s what makes it so rewarding to read.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Confucian Swordsman I

Kano Eitoku - Scholars playing weiqi (go in Japanese)
Confucianism often gets a bad rap - in its Japanese context it is characterised as a form of not so enlightened paternalism, intent on preserving the hierarchical authority and keeping women and peasants in their place.

The trouble is, that even as I read decidedly anti-Confucian works like the Tao of Pooh (or was it the Te of Piglet?), I couldn't help sympathising with the Confucians - the ideals ascribed to them, though a little outdated, seemed to me more attractive than the muddle-headed approach of the bear with very little brain. Nobility, loyalty, humanity - they don't sound too bad.

Meanwhile, Zen, of course, has received a lot of attention with regard to it's role in various arts and ways. Too much attention, many would say. This is not to deny that it did have influence in a number of fields, but perhaps not as much as its supporters would like to have us believe. Part of the problem is that many disciplines share the same vocabulary and related or analogous concepts. So, while Zen is cool, (Daoism even more so), Confucianism is straight-laced and conservative - anything that sounds interesting is habitually ascribed to Zen, and anything connected with hierarchy, paternalism or empty theorising, is blamed on Confucianism.

A little balance?
In terms of Japanese martial arts, Draeger had some interesting things to say about neo-Confucianism, chiefly dwelling on the role of the Wang Yangming school (O-Yomei in Japanese), with its emphasis on action, on the main figures of the anti-government movement which culminated in the overthrow of the Tokugawa government in the 1860s. For Draeger, an ex-marine, the philosophies of action seemed attractive (he was also a populariser of the theory of Zen influence in Japanese martial arts), but he didn't touch on the deeper influence of neo-Confucian thought in the disciplines themselves. However, even his description O-yomei neo-Confucian sounded suspiciously like a Zen substitute.

The first work available in English that did look at this issue on its own terms was a translation of the Tengu Geijutsuron (a translation from German into English, as it happens - although William Scott Wilson's far better version is now available). The title, Zen and Confucius in the Art of Swordmanship alerted the reader to the subject matter, although rather misleadingly, threw Zen into the mix- probably out of habit. Unfortunately, for the sake of our understanding, the original writer seems to have lacked the authority of a real master of the sword. An enthusiast he may have been, but he appears to have only partially understood some of the deeper aspects of the art. That his work was criticised by his near contemporaries, and on quite specific points, also attests to its popularity and influence on other writers.

It does, however, provide an interesting counterpoint to the better informed works, and can be usefully read with them.

So, why look at neo-Confucianism anyway?
Firstly, because it did influence classical Japanese martial arts, and this influence has stayed with them, in one way or another until the present day. Gaining an understanding of these influences can help us understand a little more of the arts themselves.

Secondly, Neo-Confucianism offers an interpretive framework that is firmly rooted in its own time, and yet is also fairly accessible to us in the present day. Its thinking is recognisably rational and, more-or-less, logical, rather than mystical or religious, and it seeks to explain with reference to the everyday. A number of writers used it as such, knew what they were doing, and so provided us with authentic perspectives of these martial arts when they were in a very different state than today. The terms and the analogies they use may be unfamiliar, but they are open to analysis and exploration, making the study of works written from this perspective to be quite rewarding. They appeal to our understanding, but the best of them stand as something more than theoretical interpretations.

Finally, due to their concern with life and living, they situate the practice and ideals of martial arts within daily life, providing a perspective on issues that are still very relevant to practitioners today.

Friday, 7 October 2011

The Prince and the Greengrocer

This is the poster from the current exhibition at the Kyoto Sen-Oku Hakuko-kan, the home of the Sumitomo Collection in Kyoto (They have a Tokyo branch, too). The show consists mainly of paintings from the Ming and early Ching dynasties, although you might be forgiven for thinking that the image on the poster had slipped in from elsewhere. What were the Chinese literati doing painting cute puppies anyway?

Despite it's amazingly contemporary look, it was actually painted over 400 years ago by the painter known as Bada Shanren. An album of his smaller paintings is one of the treasures of the collection, and is usually exhibited in the early autumn, with a different painting being on show every few weeks as the leaves in the album are turned over.

Bada Shanren is classified as an eccentric (at the very least), and was regarded as certifiably crazy by his contemporaries. Whether he genuinely suffered from mental illness or was just faking it to avoid persecution from the incoming Manchu rulers (he was a member of the Ming royal family) is something tht we cannot know for sure, although modern opinion seems to tend more to the latter view. He entered a monastery, where he lived for more than forty years, before emerging to live as a wandering painter.

Bada Shanren - Sumitomo Collection
His work is characterized by the simplicity of its elements, coupled with a strong expressiveness and, to our modern eyes, a certain cuteness and whimsical humour which perhaps served to cover, as well as express, the bitterness he is known to have felt towards the new rulers of China.

In Japan, he is best known for these simple compositions, but other collections have works that are larger and more complex, and which give a better idea of the range of his abilities.

It is hard not to be struck by the similarities to works by Ito Jakuchu, a Japanese painter also labelled as an eccentric, but with a very different background. Jakuchu was the son and heir of a prosperous greengrocer in Kyoto, but found little sense of achievment in his work and gave it up to his brother to become a full-time painter. It was his love of the natural world which inspired him, not hate of an invading regime.

Comparing works such as Bada Shanren's Two Eagles (above) with many of Jakuchu's paintings of chickens (a typical example below, but here are others where the composition is much closer),  the similarities, both in the composition and brush use are inescapable. Bada Shanren characteristically made extensive use of short, choppy horizontal brushstrokes - I had long noticed the slightly jarring effect of these in Jakuchu's work - but whether or not he was familiar with the Chinese painter's work, I don't know. I have never seen any mention of it, but given that he lived in Kyoto, the capital, and was well-connected in the art world, particularly with centres of artistic connisseurship such as Shokoku-ji, make it possible.

Another painting on display, by Niu Shihui (1625-1672) bore even more Jakuchuesque qualities - this was less surprising after I discovered he was Bada Shanren's brother, who shared his monastic life, and hatred of the Qing. Interestingly, he signed his name so it looked like 'Never bowing down in my lifetime'. This is, of course, taking nothing away from Jakuchu's stature as a painter - the use of models was standard practice in all schools of painting of the time.

A typical Jakuchu cockerel

Looking at works by Jakuchu, and later, the larger ones by Bada Shanren, a couple of points struck me as particularly interesting. As always with art, viewing the actual pieces is a very different experience from seeing reproductions in books. Over the years, I have seen pieces by Jakuchu many times. perhaps to the point of becoming slightly blasé about them.

This time, however, I had been looking at a room of exquisite sumi-e landscapes, mainly from the Muromachi period, mostly small in scale, but including a 6 panel screen by Kano Masanobu, founder of the Kano School. I had left the Jakuchu pieces, till last, so as not to interfere with my appreciation of the other pieces.

When I got to them, I was surprised to find they displayed an invisible depth that I hadn't appreciated before. It was an odd sensation, almost like an optical illusion, like the after image you get from looking at something bright for a while and then shifting your gaze to something darker. But it was not a sensation of the eyes, but of the mind. In that white space behind the clear graphic images of rocks, birds, insects and plants was a definite sense of the subtle, modulated greys of a traditional sumi-e landscape. Not really visible, but a definite sense of possibilities, rather like the sense of an unknown but present world you get when reading a fantasy novel, before the author fully fleshes out the world for you.

It was a pleasant surprise for me, because a similar image is often used to describe the effect of empty space in Zen paintings. I had always dismissed these as rather abstract intellectual descriptions (as many of them are, I think), but perhaps there is something to them after all.
2 Chickens by Jakuchu - in the Hosomi Collection

The other point worthy of note is the level of skill necessary to make images of this sort. It both is and isn't difficult. Many zenga, for example, which are exemplary of the simplicity of this type, are less than fully satisfying as works of art. Their often praised spontaneity is common-place to many professional artists, and what is remarkable is that these works were regarded as sufficiently important to be preserved and treasured. In fact, in many cases, they were popular among foreign collectors before they were recognized here.

Jakuchu and Bada Shanren were different and display a high level of technical skill (especially in Jakuchu's case), and much of this is technical control of the medium, involving the ability to elicit depth from the ink line which it is almost too easy to produce a superficially dramatic effect, owing simply to the fluidity with which the ink flows off the brush, and the contrast it produces on white paper. Indeed, it can be so easy, that to produce depth and meaning for oneself is more difficult than creating a memorable or pleasing image for the viewer.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

More Kumamoto - more Musashi

Poster advertising the current display at the Eisei-Bunko Gallery

Kumamoto - more of Musashi in the Prefectural Collection 

The Shimada Museum was the first stop on this whirlwind tour of Kumamoto, but not the only one. I was interested in seeing sites connected with Musashi, but more than that, it was artefacts that interested me. Time was short, so I chose the Prefectural Museum as my next stop. This had the added attraction of being situated in the castle grounds.

Kumamoto-jo (Kumamoto Castle) 
I am not exactly a castle buff, but the promise of the sight of one never fails to bring me eagerly to a train window - even the post-war reproductions are impressive: they have a unique beauty, often towering over the surrounding buildings. Just the foundations or a single tower still have an impressive grace. 

Living in Kyoto gives me access to several castle views with a minimum of effort. Nijo Castle is situated in the city itself, and one of the train lines running from Kyoto to Osaka gives you views of three castles inn the journey between the two cities. Then of course, there's Himeji Castle not so very far away - generally reckoned to be the most graceful of all the surviving castles in the country. As well as all of these, there are a few other castles that I have visited or seen in my travels around the country, so I can say I have seen a fortification or two.

Kumamoto Castle was a completely different experience from these. For a start, it's grounds are huge, and unlike Osaka castle, for example, which is surrounded by the modern high-rises of the city, it stands apart from everything in a grassy park which contains or is close by several other related facilities. The other thing that stood out immediately was that, unlike the castles in Kansai, which are almost all white, it is clad in dark, weathered wood, giving it a very different feel.

Eisei-Bunko… The Hosokawa Collection
So, my first stop in these grounds was not the castle, but another museum. To be more precise, the Kumamoto Prefectural Museum, which also houses the Kumamoto Gallery of the Eisei-Bunko Collection.

The Eisei-Bunko Collection is the result of some several centuries of careful acquisition, patronage and preservation by the Hosokawa family. As well as Kumamoto, there is an Eisei-Bunko Museum in Tokyo. In addition, parts of the collection go on tour from time to time, both nationally and abroad. Of course, as the Hosokawas were also Musashi's patrons, it is no surprise that several of Musashi's works of art are held in the collection. However, as the displays are not permanent, you never know what you will find on any particular visit. 

Nothing of Musashi's on this particular visit, although a touring exhibition of the collection's treasures is coming to Kyoto next month (lucky me) so I have another chance to see more of the collection. For anyone wishing to visit the museum in Kumamoto, my advice is go! Although there are only two rooms in the Eisei-Bunko Gallery, the standard of the collection is superb, and it is likely the you will see the work of artists seldom exhibited elsewhere. I was introduced to the work of the Yano school - I am only an interested amateur, perhaps, but I had seen none of their work before, as I recall, and the standard was clearly equal to that of the more famous Kano School. 

There was more of the Yano School next door in the Prefectural Museum proper. (It is possible to see only the Eisei-Bunko Collection.. for the grand price of 400 yen, or get a ticket allowing entry to the main part of the museum as well). 

Kumamoto Prefectural Museum
A very pleasant place, with the sensible placement of the child-centred exhibition on the B1 floor to quickly syphon off the deluge of parents and small children from the coffee shop/restaurant on the ground floor. The food was very nice, the staff friendly, and the view across the park towards the castle was perfect.

Anyway, back to the art. There were three galleries for the permanent collection - however I assume this really refers to a regularly changing display of works from the permanent collection - if I went back in 6 months time I probably wouldn't see the same things as I did this time. One had 'traditional' works from the Muromachi through the Edo period; the second displayed work from the Meiji period through till roughly pre-WWII; the last had 'modern' and western art. 

Overall, the quality of works on display was very high. The western artists included Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Durer, Rembrandt, Bougereau - all represented by good pieces… a wood cut and an etching in the case of Durer and Rembrandt. The 2nd gallery included some excellent lacquerwork by artists that I had been researching previously, but whose work I hadn't seen before.

The general, the swordsman and the lady - calligraphy and character
The 1st gallery contained some interesting works, all linked with Kumamoto. Once again, some very fine paintings from the Yano School, and some mounted calligraphy from some famous people, including Kato Kiyomasa, the daimyo who built much of Kumamoto castle, Hosokawa Gracia, the wife of Hosokawa Tadaoki (who was Musashi's patron) famous for being a Christian, and the model for the Mariko character in James Clavell's Shogun, and Musashi's Dokodo, another version of which I had already viewed in The Shimada Museum, an hour or so previously.

I find the calligraphy of famous people is quite fascinating - one fancies there are all kinds of secrets to be revealed by a careful study. Whether or not this is true, I don't know, but comparing the styles of people you know something about is an interesting exercise.

See what you make of these (answers at the bottom of the page). They were written by the three people above:
Miyamoto Musashi, Kato Kiyomasa and Hosokawa Gracia, and each of them displays quite different characteristics. Are they just aesthetic, or do they reflect the characters of the writers? (They are all letters, by the way).


What you might be looking for are the strong, unaesthetic characters brushed by Kiyomasa, a man of action used to controlling armies, running campaigns and building castles;  Musashi, also a man of action, whose life had depended upon his judgement of fine tolerances, and instantaneous explosion of force, but who combined this with a contemplative, intellectually searching mind; Hosokawa Gracia's style is different yet again, displaying the aesthetic demands required by one of her class and accomplishments.

Just for the sake of comparison, here are some pieces by Hosokawa Tadaoki himself, and another by his wife Gracia, writing in a different style.

Hosokawa Tadaoki from the Waseda University Library Collection - (click on the image to get a better view)

Gracia Hosokawa from the National Diet Library
As you can see - there was variation even within the writing of a single person. For calligraphers, there is much to be learned from looking at these kinds of pieces. I have been around calligraphers quite a bit, and studied for long enough to realise i didn't have the time to practice enough to make it worth my while continuing, and I feel that, even without understanding the words, you can get something from them - a glimpse into someone's character in quite an intimate way.

Musashi's Dokodo,
from Kumamoto Prefectural Museum

Even simple things give you some feeling of the humanity of these famous figures from the past. In Musashi's Dokodo at the Prefectural Museum, it is easy to see the attention he gave the characters, even as he was on his death bed, and the strength and precision they retained. You can also see how he charged his brush before each new precept, unlike in a letter, where the ink would gradually run out and the brush dipped in again wherever it happened to occur in the letter, mid sentence or no.

And the castle...?
Well, the castle will have to wait... but it was there that Musashi lived while he was a guest of Hosokawa Tadaoki.. so I'll say some more about it next time.

Answers (with links to the sites they came from):

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Shimada Bijutsukan - the grail of Musashi seekers

A close-up of the most famous portrait of Musashi. Even here
there's much you don't see. (Original photo here.)

Just last week I finally took my long awaited trip down to Kyushu, where one of my primary aims was to visit the Shimada Bijutsukan, which keeps a handy collection of stuff related to Miyamoto Musashi.

Kumamoto, where the museum is, was the city where Musashi spent the last few years of his life as a guest of the Hosokawas. Kyushu itself was, possibly, also an area where he had spent quite some time earlier in his life. If we are to believe the account in the Bushu Denraiki, he was involved in fighting here during the Sekigahara campaign, rather than at Sekigahara itself (which is the more common version of events). Sekigahara, by the way, is located somewhere between Kyoto and Nagoya, far away from Kyushu. Musashi's father was also down in Kyushu, and it is thought Musashi visited him.

Kyushu was also far way from the centre of power in Edo - by this time in his life it seems that Musashi had given up whatever ambitions he may have had with regard to fame and power, and so had no particular reason to remain in Honshu.

Shimada Bijutsukan
The Shimada Museum is only a short taxi ride from the main station, but already it feels like the outskirts of the city - I guess it is really, as the main station is on the western edge of the city rather than in the centre. I had imagined it to be in a more built-up area, but it's a mere stone's throw from the mountains, in a sleepy residential street with wide grass verges and little expectation of a taxi dropping by if you might need one.

It has a nice entrance-way, opening onto a courtyard of what used to be the Shimada family villa, with a very underused looking tea shop to the left and the main gallery straight ahead. It looked more like an off-season pension - friendly but needing a bit of yard work - than the repository of irreplaceable art treasures.

Of course, I was there for the exhibits, so I didn't linger outside for too long, but went inside, paying my entrance fee and heading straight for the Musashi gallery, which was a smallish room with display cabinets along the walls and one in the centre. It wasn't large, but there was more genuine Musashi memorabilia gathered there than in any other place I had seen - (which wasn't saying much, as it's seldom that more than a couple of pieces are assembled in any other venue).

Photos were out of the question, of course, but from memory, there were two of his own sumi-e works (a small landscape and a goose in flight), his famous self-portrait, a mounted section of notes written for Gorin no Sho, two swords in (probably) modern mountings, a bokuto said to be a version of his cut down oar as used for his duel with Sasaki Kojiro, but actually made in the Meiji period, a sword reputed to be Sasaki Kojiro's, several other portraits of Musashi including the famous one of him when he was a teenager, one of his namako tsuba, a version of his Dokodo, a version of Gorin no Sho (although it looked rather too modern to be one of the originals) and a case with some early Showa period comics and books etc. There could possibly have been one or two other things, but that was about it.
Someone  (not me) disregarded no photography signs to take this.

Only a small room, but it was worth the visit. Unfortunately, the glass cases got in the way of examining the swords and made it very difficult to see the koshirae in any detail (though they were clearly fine examples of Higo - that's Kumamoto area - koshirae). Looking at the paintings was quite enlightening and, as nearly always, seeing the originals was a very different experience from looking at reproductions in books or on websites. You are far more able to understand the skill and technique of the artist when you see the originals.

In a typical reproduction such as
this, the upper and lower inner
garments look the same colour -
in the actual painting, the upper is
clearly grey, the lower, white. The
detail of the pattern on the red haori
is not visible either.
I was especially struck by several features of this painting that simply do not show up on any of the reproductions I have seen. It is usually described as a self-portrait, and despite it being in a different style from Musashi's sumi-e works, there is no particular reason for doubting it. What is almost certain, however, from seeing it close up, is that Musashi had studied painting from a teacher - there are some specific techniques, particularly the pattern on the red robe, that it is very unlikely Musashi would have used (or could have used?) without instruction. Wilson barely touches on this in The Lone Samurai, and assumes Musashi signing his name in the register of Hosokawa's court artist of the Yano school was a mere formality - I question this and, as the Yanos were artists of the highest quality (as I saw in this visit) think it highly likely Musashi did take formal instruction with them. (By the way, Wilson is about the only writer who deals with Musashi's art seriously, and he is pretty good on it, so I recommend reading his book).

Of course, in Gorin no Sho, Musashi says he had no teachers, but he also says that was the first time he had written about the principles of his style, which seems to discount Heiho sanjugokajo (35 Articles on Strategy).

As with most such places, there were English titles to the exhibits, but the explanations were in Japanese. Unfortunately, they were mainly for the casual visitor, so they tended to shy away from dates and definite details and dealt in generalities. Were the koshirae of those swords supposed to have been Musashi's? Or based on some description of his koshirae? It didn't say. If this was the dokodo, what about the one I saw at the Prefectural Museum later that day? Were there two copies? And what about that suspiciously modern modern looking Gorin no Sho?

There were other galleries in the museum - it seems to show quite a lot of modern craft on a regular basis, and have seasonal exhibitions of 'samurai' related art... a big show of swords and koshirae, by modern makers, when I was there, but I didn't have time to take this in properly.

Of course, I recommend it - for Musashi afficianados, especially. A word of warning - be prepared for problems in getting away from the museum - a long walk or a long wait for the bus are likely prospects unless you are lucky. I was lucky, and while waiting for the bus in 33 degree sunshine and no shade, hailed  one of the few passing taxis and was whisked away to further sites of interest - Kumamoto castle and the Prefectural Museum.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Musashi's Monkey design Part 2

Recently, I found this picture of Musashi's monkey, which has finally allowed me to understand what the piece looked like.

It is actually an origane (soritsuno, kaeritsuno are some of the alternative names) - a small hook that fastened onto the underside of the obi (sash) and kept the sword from moving around too much. They were not used universally - presumably to the owner's taste, and were more common on wakizashi than on longer swords. 

Unfortunately, the photo is not very high quality (it looks like it's from an old auction catalogue), but it is still possible to see the overall design. At last, here was Musashi's monkey!!

What I had originally seen was this:
From Victor Harris's Go Rin no Sho
Left: the origane; right: kurigata. Note the crescent moon just visible at the bottom

From the picture below you can see how the two parts were fitted on the saya - and from this angle, would appear as in the above photo, with the monkey reaching towards the left.

A wakizashi showing positioning of the kurigata and origane (as it appears
to be made of horn, a kaeritsuno in this case). (Original source)

Being an origane, it is only small to start with, and consistent with its purpose, which is to slide over the bottom of the obi, its contours are smoothed out - perhaps this is what suggested to Musashi the form of a sinuous, long-armed monkey. From the top view in Victor Harris's book, it was not possible to see the long, relaxed curve of the monkey's arm, but the side view shows this very nicely. One might be tempted to read something into this about the importance of certain attributes in swordsmanship. After all, his tsuba also portray creatures known for their smoothness and suppleness, and the gibbon is, of course, particularly noted for the liquid quality of its movement.

Despite the function of the proverb in Zen, which is to illustrate the folly of the monkey's action (thus making it the only motif I can think of, off the top of my head, used in sword fittings which depicts an animal not to be admired), I am sure Musashi would have depicted it as embodying the qualities he found so important in swordsmanship.

The Autumn Monkey
Musashi also made a well-known written reference to monkeys.

In both Heihosanjugokajo and Gorin no Sho, Musashi writes of the 'shuko', which is written as 'Autumn monkey' and clearly refers to a monkey that does not stretch out its arms.
"Te wo dasanu kokoro nari"... 'Do not stretch out your arms', he says.

A Japanese macaque, by the painter and gifted lacquer
artist Shibata Zesshin (1807-1891)
Clearly he is not talking about gibbons, but the native Japanese monkey, which is a kind of macaque. Compared to the gibbon, these are, indeed, short-armed. The term, autumn monkey is still a little puzzling. Philology is an inexact discipline, so I am not sure there is really an answer to this. I have read one theory that suggests it refers to the behavior of the pregnant or nursing female during the autumn - normally monkeys dash forward and snatch food at arms length, but during this time, females are more cautious and only take food that doesn't necessitate such smash-and-grab tactics.

It certainly seems reasonable, but I don't know enough about the habits of the Japanese macaque to confirm this. It does have a seasonable mating period (unlike the gibbon) so there may be some truth to this.

Japanese macaques are widespread across Japan, and Musashi would undoubtably have been familiar with them, and probably have observed them at fairly close quarters. I have seen them on the outskirts of Kyoto myself. It is quite clear to an observer, that when they move, they move with the whole body - they rarely sit and stretch their arms out for food, but move their whole body to get it. Their arms retain a characteristically greater degree of curve than a human's. It may be this that made them so characteristically 'short-armed' rather than any peculiarities of the mating season. Philologically speaking, it seems just as likely that autumn was the period when they were most likely to show up in the fields to steal the ripening fruit from the farmers, or an allusion to their red faces.

Whatever the reason, it seems likely that it's usefulness as an example is strengthened by an awareness of the symbolism of 'the monkey reaching for the moon'. If reaching out gets you dead, then you shouldn't reach out. I imagine this meaning was uppermost for Musashi and those associated with him, while later generations took it primarily at face value, as suggested by the Zen story, as a warning against striving for illusory goals and earthly pleasures.

The monkey(gibbon) reaching for the moon as a motif
The use of this theme in art seems to have been comparatively well-established in Musashi's time - it is difficult to date when it was first adopted as a motif for the bushi class. Works featuring this motif have been attributed to Sesshu (1420-1506), and certainly Sesson (1504-1589) used it in several major works. The tsuba maker Kaneie may have been the first to have adopted it for sword furniture. The name Kaneie was, in fact, used by a line of famous tsuba makers rather than a single person, the first generations of whom established a new pictorial style of tsuba decoration, which included the use of designs inspired by famous painters, such as Sesshu.

Tsuba by 2nd generation Kaneie

This particular Kaneie was the 2nd generation of the line. Rumor has it that he was also a student of the sword, and also possibly a student of Musashi, (although I have seen no proof of this). He was originally based in Fushimi, later moving to Higo (present day Kumamoto) where Musashi lived in his later years, so it is certainly possible that he studied with Musashi. This is the kind of oral lore that is passed down through sword lineages and makes up much of the colour and breadth of traditional teaching.

It is an interesting connection, and certainly made me look a little harder at his tsuba - despite the delicacy of the designs, they have a robust quality which I think a swordsman would value. Fushimi was the one-time residence and administrative centre of Toyotomi Hideyoshi's rule, with many of the most important men of the realm gathered there (and Kyoto just a few kilometres up the river). Hideyoshi's promotion of the arts would have meant that Kaneie was in the right place to see plenty of fine examples of the finest painters of the time, including the Kano family and Hasegawa Tohaku.

The motif was not uncommon on swords during the Edo era, but by then it was, I presume, used without any particular reference to swordsmanship. Here is a nice example from this website:

Finally, I couldn't finish without including this contemporary painting by Enoki Toshiyuki entitled 'Autumn Monkey' in which he combines the autumn theme and the monkey reaching for the moon.