Saturday, 26 March 2011

Neko No Myojutsu - The Mysterious Skills of the Old Cat

The Cornered Rat Attacks the Cat - Ogata Gekko (1892)

Neko no Myojutsu is a story that many people will be familiar with. I first came across it as a student in DT Suzuki's Zen and Japanese Culture, an important but somewhat flawed book in this field, and subsequently it was the first text on swordsmanship that I read in Japanese, being already familiar with the story. It was also the genesis of my book The Samurai Mind. Originally I had envisaged an illustrated version of this story, done in sumi-e, and this was the proposal I sent to several publishers. Stonebridge Press picked it up and asked to see the complete series of illustrations. They liked them, and everything looked set... until their parent company got into trouble and placed a moratorium on new acquisitions. Subsequently Tuttle contacted me and said they were interested in the text, but not the illustrations, and the rest is history.

The importance of Neko no Myojutsu
The fact that it has been translated several times suggests that not only is this an appealing story, but that it might have something interesting to say. Although the author, Issai Chozan, disavowed his own skill as a swordsman, he clearly had a well-developed understanding, and was able to give a very helpful impressionistic view of the inner factors involved higher levels of the art. It is commonly included in Japanese collections of works on swordsmanship, and was, at one time, held as an inner text of the Itto-ryu.

In the context of my book, I regard it as a key to understanding these inner elements of bujutsu.

It is a fable, and this is part of its attraction and why it is so accessible. A samurai named Shoken (his name means 'Victorious Sword' or something along those lines) finds a large rat running about his house. His own cat runs away in fright and he has no luck when he tries to kill it himself. the three experienced rat-catching cats in the area have no luck either, so it is left to an old cat in a neighboring part of town to take care of things. That night, the cats have a little celebration, and ask the old cat to explain why he was so successful. He offers critiques of their methods and goes on to explain his own approach. Shoken has been listening in and interjects his own question, which the old cat answers, expanding on his original answer.

What makes it a key text?
The critiques of the old cat are important in that they compare the different methods of the three cats, each one of which uses an approach focused on one aspect of combat. Actually, each one of these approaches is fairly specific, and anyone with a broad background in martial arts that includes some knowledge about different styles and approaches, and the arguments that surround them will probably find this quite familiar. They are particularly apposite in terms of swordsmanship - from this and other writings, it seems there was some dispute about which was the most effective approach to swordsmanship, both in terms of training and tactical usage during the period in which he was writing... and later, too.

Readers will probably understand these different approaches without too much difficulty. The explanations offered by the cat on why each approach is flawed require a little more care with the translation, and I must admit that some of the translations I have read didn't supply the reader with the clarity and logic present in the original.

The cat's explanation of his myojutsu (marvellous technique) is the heart of the piece, and consequently it is here that a firm understanding of the concepts described, on the part of the translator, is most important to get a real sense of what it all means and why it works. 'It', in this case, refers to these inner factors, often referred to by terms such as shinpo or shinjutsu, that form an important part of the advanced techniques of bujutsu. The most well-known example is probably mushin, which is often treated as an exclusively Zen concept. This story is interesting in that it offers, as I noted before, an impressionistic description and explanation of this area of bujutsu, as well as describing related areas, such as mental domination and harmonizing with the opponent, and explaining why they are different and their relative superiority.

Wrapped up in a story about cats, it makes for a compelling and practical introduction to this area.

Hopefully readers will find my translation in The Samurai Mind leaves them in a better position to understand and appreciate the other works in the collection, which I will be discussing over the next few posts.

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