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. 

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