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.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Reminds me of the first time I read Yoshikawa's novel a long time ago. I am always looking forward to your detailed posts - please keep them coming.