Sunday, 30 January 2011

Musashi takes a Bath

Musashi breaks out of the bath-house, and he's not happy. A triptych by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

The fictional Musashi has a life of his own, so for a change, I thought I would write bit about one of his lesser known fictional episodes.

Despite its being a novel, the episodes presented in Yoshikawa Eiji's 'Musashi' have had a powerful influence on the way we see the historical swordsman. Inoue Takehiko's manga Vagabond, is one of the most notable contemporary versions of the tale - the well known series of movies starring Mifune Toshiro, and the slightly less well-known (but possibly better) series starring Nakamura Kinnosuke are direct adaptations of Yoshikawa's novel, while numerous other versions in various media draw heavily on his work. His novel did not spring, sui generis, from nothing. There had been several films, books and a long history of oral tellings of Musashi's story, not to mention a popular kabuki play, and it is to this we must turn to discover the origin of the particular episode illustrated in the print above.

I first saw this print in Victor Harris's 'A Book of Five Rings', and it was a few years later that I saw the first in the series of the Nakamura Kinnosuke films and discovered the same scene... "Aah, this is where it comes from", I thought. Actually, I was wrong, but it wasn't until quite a lot later that I discovered the real source of this story... an 18th century kabuki play.

These two prints show Musashi threatening Dengoemon.

Unfortunately, I have lost the details of the artist.

Katakiuchi Ganryujima
The play, Katakiuchi Ganryujima 'Vengeance at Ganryu Island' was written in 1737 by the playwright Fujiwara Banzaburo, in Osaka. Its popularity ensured its transfer to Edo theatres the following year, where it hit the big time. It concerns Musashi's vendetta against the villainous Ganryu, who ambushed and killed Musasashi's father, Munisai (with a gun), finally ending with the famous duel in which Ganryu loses his life. Of course, Ganryu is thoroughly villainous, and stoops to all sorts of 'low tricks' (in fact, borrowing something of the real Musashi's use of heiho to defeat his opponents with unexpected tactics - Musashi still bears the stigma, in some quarters of, using less than straight-forward means to win his victories).

The bath-house scene occurs when Musashi is on the trail of Ganryu, and having heard of a sword teacher who answers to Ganryu's description, visits him under a pseudonym and applies for a match. When he arrives, he discovers that the man, Shirakura Dengoemon, is actually who he says he is, and not Ganryu. At this stage, he feels he can't turn back, and so fights several of the pupils, and beating them, goes on to fight the teacher, whom he also defeats. Dengoemon, pretends to take his defeat in good form and, after revealing that he suspects Musashi's real identity, asks him to stay a while as his guest and teach him. Musashi agrees, and stays for two or three months, although gradually coming to feel that Dengoemon is not really the kind of person he should have as a student. All the while, Dengoemon is watching out for a chance to kill Musashi. He takes a few of his students into his confidence, and after dismissing various options, decides to shut Musashi in the new bath-house Dengoemon has just had constructed on his property, and there boil/steam him into a weakened condition and kill him, if he hasn't already been killed outright.

Musashi in the bath-house. From a print by Kuniyoshi
With this in mind, they throw a party to celebrate the new bath-house, and when Musashi, slightly the worse for drink, prepares to leave for bed, they persuade him to take the inaugural bath. He goes in, without his weapons, of course, and the men outside bar the door and start adding more and more hot water. Musashi calls out that it's too, hot, then realising that it's a trap, smashes his way through the door, grabs the piece of wood used to bar the door and lays about him, killing anyone who comes too close... including Dengoemon. Running back to his room he grabs his swords and a thin robe, before escaping into the mountains, stopping only briefly to kill Dengoemon's wife, who comes at him wielding a naginata.

It's all fiction, of course, but it's interesting how Yoshikawa included a similar incident in his own novel - given his extensive research, it is likely he knew of this story and adapted it to fit into his own novel and help provide motivation for the young Musashi's feelings of alienation when he returns to his home village after the battle of Sekigahara.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Musashi Koshirae

Poster for an exhibition at the Shimada Art Museum 2009

The subject of swords and koshirae is vast - and one that I`m not really qualified to venture too far into. Koshirae - the term for the various fittings and furniture that go with a blade to make what we generally call a 'sword' - is, nonetheless, interesting to me as a practitioner of swordsmanship, and in that light I will offer a few comments about Musashi's koshirae. Of course, tsuba, which I wrote about in my last post, form part of the koshirae, as well as the tsuka, kashira, fushi, menuki, saya and all the other bits and pieces.

As bushi went through their lives, most would have owned a number of different swords. Good blades would have been kept, though some were no doubt, broken or lost or passed on, depending on circumstances. Sword blades in Japan were often refitted according to the taste of the owner,  and occasionally cut-down or otherwise altered from their original form.

In Musashi's case, it seems that in his younger years he preferred a very functional style of koshirae. In his own writings, he disparages attachment to any particular weapons, and was, of course well-known for his use of bokken in duels. Both from this comment (which I take to mean, not that he didn't value well-made swords, for example, but that he was wary of the limitations that may arise from partiality to particular weapons) and from what we know about his wandering lifestyle in his early years, it is no surprise that his taste tended towards the dour and practical.

It seems there are some differences of opinion on this subject - I was shown a sword with Musashi koshirae some years ago. I didn't ask its provenance - the blade was certainly fairly old and I can't remember exactly what I was told about the koshirae, though they had certainly been fitted long before the current vogue for reproduction swords in the style of famous historical figures.
A modern example of gangi maki

The tsuka was wrapped in the style known as gangi maki (see photo for a modern example) and the saya was lacquered a dull brown - quite different from the shiny (and modern) tamenuri finish of the sword in the Shimada Bijutsukan in Kumamoto.

The tsuka gashira on the example I saw looked something like this

The tsuka gashira (the cap on the end of the hilt) was a slightly pointed arch shape, but not the exaggerated point that is sometimes seen, but obviously intended for striking. In terms of functionality, this also makes sense... there would have been no need to actually penetrate the body with the strike - tsuka gashira merely needed to focus the shock and remain undamaged. The butt end of the saya (saya gashira) was also metal and durable-looking, although I must admit that I have forgotten the exact design.

The advantages of this type of design are apparent for someone who led a life involving a lot of traveling, possibly living rough, combined with hard training and punctuated with fights. Although the normal type of mountings can stand a degree of rough treatment, everyday use can take its toll, even in modern life, let alone if you were tramping through mountains and forests. I can readily see the advantages of something that is more resistant to wear and tear.

An older example of katate kasane maki

On the other hand, the late Rev. Kensho Furuya, who was a sword collector as well as aikido teacher wrote that Musashi's tsuka was wrapped in katate kasane maki, rather than gangi maki. One or two references to this can be found online, as well as this picture, (posted by Furuya) which shows the style of wrapping.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Musashi Tsuba

From the Kumamoto Prefectural Museum

After spending some time looking at the Yagyu tsuba, I thought it was only fair to take a similar look at the tsuba that Miyamoto Musashi made. When I say made, although it is by no means certain to what extent he was actualy involved in their manufacture, his skills as an artist are not in doubt, so it is likely that he was more involved in the work than Yagyu Renyasai; I imagine he actually drew out the designs at some stage and, as we know he had skill as a wood-carver, may even have made maquettes (wooden models) and quite likely worked the metal himself. It is also fairly likely that, when he lived as a guest of the Hosokawa family in his later years, that he would have been able to work with skilled artisans in the same way that Renyasai did.

There are two designs that have come down to us that are normally credited to Musashi. The first might, more properly, be regarded as his version of an already existing design. This is his namako or sea cucumber/sea slug design. Several different versions of this exist, differing only slightly, that were made by him or under supervision, but as anyone who has ever googled 'Musashi' and 'tsuba' will know, it is extremely popular as a design for replica swords, both on account of its connection with Musashi and its elegant simplicity (and thus ease of reproduction).

Although the term namako is used independently to refer to this vaguely slug-shaped design in a variety of contexts, I think Musashi may have been purposely referencing the sea cucumber, given that his other tsuba design, the namazu and hyotan (catfish and gourd) is strongly linked to the same principle characteristic - slipperiness.

This is another variation - I believe it is authentic and belongs to a private collector
The slippery sea slug
If you want more on this, you will have to see Robin D. Gill's book, 'Rise, Ye Sea Slugs', an anthology of sea cucumber poetry, but just a couple of the poems he includes will give you an idea:

Sanehira no te o suberitaru namako kana
It even gave
the slip to Sanehira (i.e. it slipped from his hands)
sea slug sashimi
- Chosui (1700-1769)

Shingen mo hashi ni kufu no namako kana
Even Shingen
had to improvise
eating sea slug (with chopsticks)
-Somaru (1712-1795)

From the Musashi Shiryokan in Mimasaka City
The slippery catfish
The saying 'hyotan de namako wo osaeru' (to hold down a catfish with a gourd) has two closely related meanings - one denotes the impossibility of an endeavor, while the other is somewhat similar to 'as slippery as an eel'. The theme has a long connection with Zen, starting, as far as anyone has been able to reliably ascertain, with a painting by  Josetsu, Hyonenzu, which is usually translated as 'Catching a catfish with a gourd'. The theme was suggested by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimochi, and above the painting itself are 31 poems brushed by important Zen monks commenting on the difficulty or non-sensical nature of the task. Since then, the theme has been used as an illustration of the difficulty of attaining enlightenment through rational means. As Dave Lowry noted in an old column in Black Belt magazine, the solution is to leave the gourd and allow the curious catfish to find its own way in.

However, if we are using the image in the sense of pinning down the catfish, it is the slippery nature of both the gourd and the fish that are important. The fact that Musashi used the theme of slipperiness on two tsuba designs seems to point to an important aspect of his swordsmanship. The gourd itself had a very similar role as a symbol in the teachings of the Kashima Shinryu, and presumeably also in Yagyu swordsmanship, (there are references to it in poems by Yagyu Sekishusai and in the tsuba designs of Renyasai) relating to the difficulty of pressing down a buoyant gourd underwater. This image almost exactly parallels that of the catfish and the gourd - once you think you have it, it has wriggled out from underneath your sword. I believe this refers to the sensitivity necessary in pressing down an opponent's blade, as well as the irrepressible fluidity the swordsman sought to develop himself.

Other tsuba associated with Musashi
As well as the tsuba he designed, Musashi used a variety of tsuba on his own swords - although one portrait does appear to show the namako tsuba on his sword, the well-known self-portrait does not. I haven't visited the Shimada Art Museum in Kumamoto, but  believe there is a tsuba with a cherry blossom design which is said to have been owned by Musashi. I can find no hard information on it, but I believe it may be this one, which is owned by the museum, and is certainly very beautiful.

Intriguingly, the bridge over the Miyamotogawa in the village of Ohara, which claims to be the birth-place of Musashi, and has done its best to lure the tourists hither, displays both a cherry blossom tsuba design and the common namako design. Whether this was a whim of the artist or based on some hard facts, I have no idea.

Quick edit... I was looking at the design as a sukashi tsuba...with the dark bits cut out...of course it is actually the design in the photo above - I just didn't realise it until now.

I was going to write something about Musashi koshirae, but I think that will have to wait for next time or I'll never get this up!

Saturday, 8 January 2011

The Bushu Denraiki - source document for the Musashi story

This was my winter reading - well a bit of it, anyway.

The commonly told of Miyamoto Musashi is a much patched version taken from a variety of sources of varying reliability, stitched together in what has become a familiar pattern, including large doses of speculation and outright fiction. Of course, much of the fiction comes from Yoshikawa Eiji's novel, which many of the subsequent movie and TV versions were based on. His version, which drew heavily from previous versions and documents, some of which contained greater or lesser amounts of reliable historical information, has become a kind of de facto story of Musashi's life.

It was only when reading through William de Lange's new(ish) translation of the Bushu Denraiki, one of these source documents, that I realised how little detail there is on these documents in English, even when you include William Wilson's 'The Lone Swordsman' and Kenji Tokitsu's 'Miyamoto Musashi: his life and writings'. While Wilson used a wide variety of sources, he steers clear of discussing them individually, and while Tokitsu is good on Musashi's own writings (and lots else besides), he gives less information on sources about Musashi's life.

De Lange is particularly good on just this sort of thing, laying the historical context out clearly and providing extensive notes and background on the major figures involved (albeit tangentially, in some cases) in Musashi's life. He gives a valuable explanation of the relationships between these major sources, which goes a long way to helping us understand the roots of the legend.

The source documents which form the basis of what we know about Musashi's life fall into two parallel streams: the Bushu Denraiki (1727) itself, written by a 4th generation successor to the Niten Ichi-ryu, Tachibana Minehira, and the Hyoho (sometimes written as Heiho) Senshi Denki (1782) which was written by a 'grand-student' of Minehira's, who had left Fukuoka and settled in Harima, one Niwa Nobuhide, and based his account on what he could remember of  Minehira's original, embroidering where necessary to fill in the gaps. This stream of knowledge was Kyushu based, and was connected with the Kuroda clan, with whom Musashi had strong connections early in his career.

The other stream was connected with the Hosokawa family, with whom Musashi was close to in his later life. Tokitsu also mention this, (though he gives different readings of the names, as well as different dates). According to de Lange, the Bukoden (1755) was compiled by Toyoda Masanaga, then rewritten in an updated and clearer form by his son, Toyoda Masashige (1776) as the Nitenki (which is perhaps the source most commonly quoted from).

In addition, there is the Kokura Hibun, which is not a document as such, but a stone monument set up by Musashi's adopted son Iori in 1654. This is the earliest account of Musashi's life, and although it is generally considered accurate, it must be considered a partisan account. (There are other, contemporary, references to Musashi, but not accounts of his life).

The book, 'The Real Musashi: Origins of a Legend - the Bushu Denraiki' is valuable as being one of the earliest and purest of the accounts of Musashi's life. There are many details that will probably be unfamiliar to Musashi fans, even ones who are fairly well-read - it gives details of Musashi's involvement in a seige in Kyushu at the time of Sekigahara, rather than fighting in that battle, as well as an alternative, and quite interesting, account of the duel on Ganryujima. As de Lange admits, although some of the stories are almost certainly untrue, there is also much that appears factual, some of which has also been corroborated by other sources - in any case, the whole combines to give a fresh and vivid impression of the master swordsman, written by someone who was concerned to give as accurate a portrait as he could, based on the stories and recollections of his own masters.

This is a nice book - it is well written and presented, with the original text and the accompanying notes clearly differentiated by the use of different fonts. It is limited in  its scope, but purposely so, which gives it a nice compactness. Although I have one or two minor quibbles, they are not really worth detailing here, but as they are particularly germane to this blog I will just mention two.... the place where Musashi fought the Yoshioka's in his final 'duel' with them, is sagarimatsu not kudarimatsu, and the Ichijo Temple (Ichijoji) was not still standing in Musashi's day, as de Lange has it.

Overall, however, de Lange has a firm and confident hand with both the translation and the notes. (It is worth saying, however, that the notes take up as much or more space than the translation, which is not particularly long). It is certainly worth reading if you are interested in Musashi, but it is a rather specialised volume, and is probably best digested after reading some of the broader based works, such as the two mentioned above, to get a more balanced perspective. It is also a touch pricey for its size, at least the imported version was. I noticed that de Lange's accompanying volume, The accompanying volume, The Bukoden, is due out this spring, and it seems de Lange also plans a biography of Musashi. I think I will probably be getting it.

By the way, in case you were wondering, the 'Bushu' in the title Bushu Denraiki, is an early pronunciation of Musashi. The title means "The Recorded Transmissions of Musashi".