Saturday, 30 July 2011

Musashi's Monkey Design Part 1

Not by Musashi, but Mu Qi, a Chinese painter
of the Song Dynasty. 
I have a particular fondness for gibbons, so I was very pleased to be able to add another piece to a mystery that has puzzled me for quite a few years now - what is that strange sword fitting, attributed to Musashi, shown in Victor Harris's Go Rin No Sho?

Miyamoto Musashi's artwork is well known - but as with any artist, many of his works are far more familiar to us than others.

His paintings, especially of the shrike sitting on a branch, are often reproduced and, of course, his tsuba design has become extremely popular with manufacturers of reproduction swords. A quick search on google will produce an overwhelming number of these. However, there are many of his works that are far less well-known.

Elusive or exclusive? 
Many of these are in private collections or small municipal museums, and are, in many cases, not on permanent display or not available for public viewing at all.

Perhaps this is a good thing - it may aid the preservation of fragile works, and is, to some extent, a carry-over of the original use and purposes of these works of art. Many works are owned and kept by temples and shrines, and are still used as part of their devotional practices. The yearly Gion festival in Kyoto features large wheeled floats that are decorated with Gobelin tapestries and many other extremely valuable artworks of various ages and provenances. (Within the last few years, the older tapestries have been replaced with replicas, but still, for hundreds of years, these 17th century tapestries were paraded around the city on a yearly basis, suffering the vagaries of the rain, heat and high humidity). This is art being used, as part of life, and it may, in many ways, be better than the preservation of objects in the sterile setting of a museum, as part of the heritage industry.

(Of course, I am also a greedy consumer of that heritage industry, and welcome the chance to see art in the comfortable and accessible setting of a museum, removed from the location and context for which it was originally designed.)

But some works remain elusive. Art collecting in Japan still partakes of the exclusive, the secretive, and the elitist. There is nothing wrong in this per se, but it does make it a world of closed doors and hidden treasures. However catching a glimpse of these can be a pleasure in itself.

Musashi's Monkey
Of all of Musashi's works, perhaps the most elusive has been one of the first I ever saw. This was one of several examples of koshirae (sword fittings) he designed; a monkey stretching for the moon.  The original - and for a long time, the only - pictures I had seen of this piece were, as I mentioned above, in Victor Harris's Go Rin No Sho, but despite being good quality photographs, they didn't really show the piece clearly, and it was quite difficult to imagine what it looked like. The two photos actually show two different pieces of a set, a top view of the monkey, and of the kurigata, but neither is easy to identify if you are not familiar with this sort of thing.

Reaching for the Moon
The theme is a familiar one in Japanese art - a long-armed monkey (a gibbon, really) reaches for the reflection of the moon in pool. Although it is not exactly common, it is also not especially unusual as a theme for sword fittings. Here is an example from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts:

Hakuin Ekaku
The theme comes from Buddhism, and thus from China, and has been popular a popular one with artists. Even without the moon, gibbons have been a popular theme - Mu Qi, the Chinese painter, set the bar very high with the painting shown at the top of this post; Hasegawa Tohaku's gibbons are also very fine - he surely saw Mu Qi's work as it is owned by Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto - Tohaku lived and worked in the city - and a little later, Hakuin Ekaku brushed some playful versions that have become some of the best known illustrations of the story.

The story was popular in the Zen tradition - the symbolism is clear, and can be elaborated in detail, but simply stated, it represents the futility of desire: the monkey is reaching for an illusion, a reflection of the truth. As soon as it touches the water, the reflection will be gone. No matter how hard it tries, it can never grasp the truth (in this way).

Kano Minenobu
An older version of the story makes the dangers more apparent. One night, upon waking, a monkey noticed the reflection of the moon in the pool far below. Thinking that the moon had fallen in and they would all be plunged into permanent night-time darkness if it sank, the monkeys organised a chain to reach down and grab it. Alas, the branch broke, and they fell in and drowned.

For an artist to depict this theme requires a little humility - it can apply to so many areas that it is difficult not to see something of oneself in the monkey... after all most of us are striving for the baubles of life, believing they will give us happiness. Perhaps it this aspect of personal identification that has most artists'  monkeys looking so cute.

So what does Musashi's monkey look like? I will post pictures in part 2.

(N.B. although I use  the terms interchangeably here, the 'monkey' is really a gibbon - and gibbon's are not actually monkeys. I know this, and it would have annoyed the hell out of me in years gone by, but as it is usually translated as monkey, I will let it pass.)

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Ryozen Historical Museum - Ryoma and the Shinsengumi

Ishi-chan, the museum mascot.
What have things come to!?
At last I got round to visiting the Ryozen Museum.

I had put it off for a long time as I had heard that a lot of the information about the exhibits was in Japanese and I'd always felt it was a bit pricey for what I was likely to get out of it.

Now that my Japanese is better and my background knowledge of the period has also improved, I felt ready to brave it.

The museum is on the far eastern edge of Kyoto, tucked behind the scenic Higashiyama tourist trail, up a fairly steep slope. It's not difficult to find, but you aren't likely to pass that way by chance, unless you have a thing for graveyards and instinctively head away from the crowd.

It was an interesting visit, but there are a few caveats for anyone interested in going themselves. Firstly, the museum is dedicated to the Bakumatsu Period, which is comparatively little known amongst non-Japanese, even among those with an interest in Japanese history - it features a large cast of characters, some of whom are quite famous (while others, equally important, are not) who were involved in a complex series of events that developed and came to fruition in a remarkably short period of time.

Not surprisingly, most of the sources are in Japanese, but even those in English (some of which are excellent) can be confusing, reflecting the chaotic nature of the period itself. The museum concentrates on several of the big names and big incidents (the Ikedaya, the Shinsengumi, the death of Sakamoto Ryoma), but it has lots else besides, including artifacts belonging to or associated with some people I had never heard of.

This would not be problematic if there were explanations in English, but unfortunately, this is not the case. Not that I'm complaining - one shouldn't expect there to be, but visitors beware. As in most museums, the items on display have the title in English, but the explanatory text is only in Japanese. What is a pity, however, is that there is no catalogue. I would have been happy to buy one and work my way through the entriesat my leisure - in real time, it required a bit more time  and patience on the part of my companions than they were willing to give, so rather than bore them stupid as I peered at the explanations, making notes and sketches, I resolved to come back on my own next time.

The items on display were quite mixed, including swords, armour, banners, letters, paintings and photographs - enough physical memorabilia to be interesting to those who would have trouble reading Japanese, but perhaps not so interesting if you really didn't have a clue who the Kondo Isami or Sakamoto Ryoma were. However, I was glad of the chance to see them.

Kondo's armour:

Kondo Isami's practice bokuto (wooden sword) and keikogi (practice jacket) with the embroidered skull on the back, were interesting to see - the bokuto itself was fairly standard in size, although the wood looked quite dense, but the tsuba was unusual in its thckness, this must have altered the balance quite a bit, and may have been a means of increasing the weight of the whole thing, or a matter of balance. There was also one of the heavy bokuto the Tennen Rishin Ryu (practiced by Kondo and Hijikata) sometimes use, as a hands-on exhibit which the public are allowed to touch and feel the weight of (it was fixed so it couldn't be swung, so it wasn't really possible to get a proper feel for what it would be like to wield it) - it felt extremely heavy. Also on display were Kondo's mail armour jacket and Hijikata Toshizo's sword. This was interesting - despite the generally received opinion that shorter swords were handier when it came to action (as expressed by Ryoma, among others) it was fairly long, and broad in the blade, with a long tsuka (hilt). The sword he favored later (by Izumi no kami Kanesada) is in the Hijikata Museum in Saitama (and is, indeed, shorter) but this one is similar in length to one Kondo mentioned in a letter in which he wrote about Hijikata's swords {this sword is 2 shaku, 6 sun, 9 bu (81.5cm): the one mentioned in the letter was 2 shaku, 8 sun (84.8)}. Also on display were the swords of Katsura Hayonosuke, one of which was used to kill Ryoma (and which I wrote about in a previous post).

This shows the two dioramas - from the museum

Another interesting part was the model corner - there were two scale models - one showed the attack on the Ikedaya, and the other Ryoma's death. They were both very nice models (complete with figures) and made it much easier to envisage these two incidents as they might have been. There was also a '3d' film explaining the death of Ryoma... it was really a narrated walkthrough of the model, but I didn't have time for that.

It seems that the exhibits change from time to time, but I suspect the more interesting and well-known ones remain fairly constant. Overall, recommended for history buffs, but if you're not so familiar with the period, you might find better places to spend your time.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

More on Vagabond

I hadn't meant to write about this, but somehow I found myself doing it. I think I have mentioned Inoue's marvelous Vagabond before, but it's one of those things you can't have too much of. 

Of all the swordsmen of Japan, Miyamoto Musashi is probably the one who has caught the imagination most strongly: the subject of plays, novels, non-fiction, several TV series and movies, and of course his own writing continues to sell well to this day.

And, like many figures from the past, our knowledge of Musashi is colored by these many fictional renditions of the character. While western audiences often dwell on the violence of his life, impressed by his record of victories in duels, the Japanese view is more nuanced, and tends to take personal development as its major theme. The most famous example of this approach is the novel Musashi by Yoshikawa Eiji, originally released in serialised form in the 1930s. Musashi is depicted as a young man looking to develop his skills to become the strongest swordsman in the country. The depiction shows a driven, single-minded, yet chivalrous character, who grows as he learns from the pain and sacrifices involved in the pursuit of his dream. His childhood friend, Matahachi acts as a foil to Musashi – a kind of everyman who follows his whims, doesn’t have the strength of character to suffer for his dreams, and tries to achieve success without achievement. The contrast between the two is clear, though many will see as much of Matahachi in themselves as Musashi.

Tsuruta Koji as Sasaki Kojiro
The other major character who sets Musashi in relief is the swordsman Sasaki Kojiro – and the novel uses the readers knowledge of their climactic duel to create an ongoing tension between the two characters. Although a consummate swordsman, he appears as a man who has arrived, and is confident of his position and worth. Cool and assured – he displays no doubts when it comes to his art, wielding his sword with a cold, arrogant precision. (I must admit to liking Tsuruta Koji's portrayal of his character in the Samurai Trilogy starring Mifune Toshiro far better than Mifune's Musashi).

This rendition of Musashi has been the predominant one for many years. It has been a pleasure, therefore, in the last ten years or so, to see a powerful reworking of Yoshikawa’s themes in the hands of one of the premiere contemorary manga artists, Inoue Takehiko.

As a medium, manga is broad and multi-faceted, with all the variation one might expect of such a popular and widespread art form. At its best, it combines the depth of graphic novels with the continuity and addictiveness of a long running TV series. Vagabond, Inoue’s manga based on Yoshikawa’s novel, currently runs to 33 collected volumes, with about 200 pages per volume.

Not only is the art several cuts above the norm in manga - he started in pen and ink but later shifted to brush - and in his larger public works has extended the range of this individual form of ink painting - ichinin: ippa (one man: one style) indeed - but the story continues to hold and fascinate a huge readership (22 million copies have been sold worldwide!!). One of his major innovations is his reworking of the Kojiro character, giving him an extensive backstory and portraying him far more sympathetically than in the original novel.

From Inoue's book 'Water': Kojiro fights his way out of the aftermath of Sekugahara

The artist’s strong identification with his characters has also been the cause of problems. In an interview for the NHK documentary Professional no Ryugi (September 2009), he revealed how difficult it has been for him to continue with the darker sides of the story, and as the series moved towards its conclusion and the ultimate death of Kojiro, he seems to have stalled, unable to continue.

In the meantime, he has busied himself with other works, including a series of cards called ‘Smiles’, proceeds from which are going to help the victims of the Tohoku earthquake, and a large (more than 5m long) folding screen for Higashi Honganji Temple in Kyoto, as one of the events commemorating the 750th anniversary of Shinran’s death. It is good to see such a powerful and popular artist involved in projects beyond the immediate world of manga (not to denigrate the medium...and he is currently continuing to produce another story, Real, about wheelchair basketball) - his traveling exhibition The LAST MANGA Exhibition was a ground breaking extension of manga to a museum context, telling the story of the last day of Musashi’s life, which was so popular that many people couldn’t get tickets to see it when it was first on...

Inoue working on his Shinran piece. From

...but I do hope he manages to finish the Vagabond series.