Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Shimada Bijutsukan - the grail of Musashi seekers

A close-up of the most famous portrait of Musashi. Even here
there's much you don't see. (Original photo here.)

Just last week I finally took my long awaited trip down to Kyushu, where one of my primary aims was to visit the Shimada Bijutsukan, which keeps a handy collection of stuff related to Miyamoto Musashi.

Kumamoto, where the museum is, was the city where Musashi spent the last few years of his life as a guest of the Hosokawas. Kyushu itself was, possibly, also an area where he had spent quite some time earlier in his life. If we are to believe the account in the Bushu Denraiki, he was involved in fighting here during the Sekigahara campaign, rather than at Sekigahara itself (which is the more common version of events). Sekigahara, by the way, is located somewhere between Kyoto and Nagoya, far away from Kyushu. Musashi's father was also down in Kyushu, and it is thought Musashi visited him.

Kyushu was also far way from the centre of power in Edo - by this time in his life it seems that Musashi had given up whatever ambitions he may have had with regard to fame and power, and so had no particular reason to remain in Honshu.

Shimada Bijutsukan
The Shimada Museum is only a short taxi ride from the main station, but already it feels like the outskirts of the city - I guess it is really, as the main station is on the western edge of the city rather than in the centre. I had imagined it to be in a more built-up area, but it's a mere stone's throw from the mountains, in a sleepy residential street with wide grass verges and little expectation of a taxi dropping by if you might need one.

It has a nice entrance-way, opening onto a courtyard of what used to be the Shimada family villa, with a very underused looking tea shop to the left and the main gallery straight ahead. It looked more like an off-season pension - friendly but needing a bit of yard work - than the repository of irreplaceable art treasures.

Of course, I was there for the exhibits, so I didn't linger outside for too long, but went inside, paying my entrance fee and heading straight for the Musashi gallery, which was a smallish room with display cabinets along the walls and one in the centre. It wasn't large, but there was more genuine Musashi memorabilia gathered there than in any other place I had seen - (which wasn't saying much, as it's seldom that more than a couple of pieces are assembled in any other venue).

Photos were out of the question, of course, but from memory, there were two of his own sumi-e works (a small landscape and a goose in flight), his famous self-portrait, a mounted section of notes written for Gorin no Sho, two swords in (probably) modern mountings, a bokuto said to be a version of his cut down oar as used for his duel with Sasaki Kojiro, but actually made in the Meiji period, a sword reputed to be Sasaki Kojiro's, several other portraits of Musashi including the famous one of him when he was a teenager, one of his namako tsuba, a version of his Dokodo, a version of Gorin no Sho (although it looked rather too modern to be one of the originals) and a case with some early Showa period comics and books etc. There could possibly have been one or two other things, but that was about it.
Someone  (not me) disregarded no photography signs to take this.

Only a small room, but it was worth the visit. Unfortunately, the glass cases got in the way of examining the swords and made it very difficult to see the koshirae in any detail (though they were clearly fine examples of Higo - that's Kumamoto area - koshirae). Looking at the paintings was quite enlightening and, as nearly always, seeing the originals was a very different experience from looking at reproductions in books or on websites. You are far more able to understand the skill and technique of the artist when you see the originals.

In a typical reproduction such as
this, the upper and lower inner
garments look the same colour -
in the actual painting, the upper is
clearly grey, the lower, white. The
detail of the pattern on the red haori
is not visible either.
I was especially struck by several features of this painting that simply do not show up on any of the reproductions I have seen. It is usually described as a self-portrait, and despite it being in a different style from Musashi's sumi-e works, there is no particular reason for doubting it. What is almost certain, however, from seeing it close up, is that Musashi had studied painting from a teacher - there are some specific techniques, particularly the pattern on the red robe, that it is very unlikely Musashi would have used (or could have used?) without instruction. Wilson barely touches on this in The Lone Samurai, and assumes Musashi signing his name in the register of Hosokawa's court artist of the Yano school was a mere formality - I question this and, as the Yanos were artists of the highest quality (as I saw in this visit) think it highly likely Musashi did take formal instruction with them. (By the way, Wilson is about the only writer who deals with Musashi's art seriously, and he is pretty good on it, so I recommend reading his book).

Of course, in Gorin no Sho, Musashi says he had no teachers, but he also says that was the first time he had written about the principles of his style, which seems to discount Heiho sanjugokajo (35 Articles on Strategy).

As with most such places, there were English titles to the exhibits, but the explanations were in Japanese. Unfortunately, they were mainly for the casual visitor, so they tended to shy away from dates and definite details and dealt in generalities. Were the koshirae of those swords supposed to have been Musashi's? Or based on some description of his koshirae? It didn't say. If this was the dokodo, what about the one I saw at the Prefectural Museum later that day? Were there two copies? And what about that suspiciously modern modern looking Gorin no Sho?

There were other galleries in the museum - it seems to show quite a lot of modern craft on a regular basis, and have seasonal exhibitions of 'samurai' related art... a big show of swords and koshirae, by modern makers, when I was there, but I didn't have time to take this in properly.

Of course, I recommend it - for Musashi afficianados, especially. A word of warning - be prepared for problems in getting away from the museum - a long walk or a long wait for the bus are likely prospects unless you are lucky. I was lucky, and while waiting for the bus in 33 degree sunshine and no shade, hailed  one of the few passing taxis and was whisked away to further sites of interest - Kumamoto castle and the Prefectural Museum.

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.