Thursday, 14 June 2012

The Return of Vagabond

Pre-publication advert for the return of the Vagabond strip
(Courtesy of Kodansha Press)

Last month saw the return of Inoue Takehiko's manga Vagabond to the pages of the manga 'Morning' after a break of some one and a half years.

For those who don't know it, this is an immensely popular work based around the life of Miyamoto Musashi, using Yoshikawa Eiji's novel as a starting point. With an intricate plot and detailed back stories, it diverges from Yoshikawa's novel on many points, and is fully worthy of being treated as a major work in its own right.

Cover of the May 16th edition of Morning
(Courtesy of Kodansha Press)

Inoue, who commented in interviews on the difficulty of continuing a story that continually threw characters he had so closely identified with into dark and violent situations, stopped writing in mid-story, citing his physical condition as the reason.

In the meantime, he busied himself with other projects, including raising money for victims of the Tohoku earthquake, and a major work painted in situ for the Higashi Honganji Temple in Kyoto.

After an official announcement this March, May saw the first installments of the continuation of Vagabond. Although Inoue said he would take it easy and work at a slower pace, I'm all sure all his fans are happy, just so long as he continues.

From the May 5th edition of Switch

In an interview in the May edition of the magazine Switch, he explained that he had been looking for a way to continue that involved something more than hurrying to a predetermined conclusion, combining the enjoyment and energy of the exhibitions he mounted with the manga strip.

I hope he finds it.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Spirit and the Swordsman: the spiritual side of martial arts

Detail of a painting by Takahashi Deishu, friend of the more famous
Katsu Kaishu (and Yamaoka Tesshu). The calligraphy on this piece
(not shown) muses on the inevitability of death.

Asian martial arts have always had something of an air of mystery in the west, and part of that is their connection with the spiritual and religious traditions of their countries of origin. However, many people mistake these connections for spiritual content. Characteristics such as slowness and deliberateness of movement, exotic clothes, unfamiliar terminology, not to mention the age and ethnicity of practitioners, are sometimes taken as further evidence of spirituality. Of course, things are not so simple, and there are some hard questions to be asked about just what is 'spiritual' about martial traditions.

There are also those who dismiss the spiritual side completely, and perhaps this is a wise course. In many cases it has been overplayed - the connection between Zen and traditional Japanese martial arts is just one example - but still, there is something in Asian martial arts that lends itself to such misunderstandings, something that seems quite different from European traditions, and it might be that such an interest is not so terribly misplaced after all.

To examine this issue properly, you would have to look at:

-the nature of the spiritual traditions
-their role and status in society
-relationship by proximity,
-personal religious preferences of practitioners of martial arts
-the nature of the martial disciplines themselves the very least.

Below are a few of the thoughts I have had on the subject:

The place of the 'spiritual' in society
Part of this difference must lie in the difference in religious traditions between Europe and East Asia. The Christian tradition was, historically speaking, militantly monotheistic and intolerant, both of other religions and variations of its own teachings. Religious practice was organised and centred on the church. Alternative spiritual practices were forbidden. Usually on pain of torture, death, or some combination of the two.

This led to a comparatively narrow definition of what constituted 'spiritual' practices.

In the far-east (I am most familiar with China and Japan, but much of this is quite general) a number of different religious and spiritual practices were tolerated and practiced in geographically close communities - often within a single community. Not only did differing schools of each particular religion co-exist, but also different religions. This allowed extensive cross-fertilisation, and the development of collateral disciplines. Many of these were concerned, to some degree, with the use and development of particular mental states, breathing, concentration etc., some of which had obvious value to the warrior. Whether or not these were directly absorbed, the higher levels of bugei were also concerned with 'inner' factors that gave the warrior access to superior performance. It is safe to say that whatever the relationship between these two sets of skills, those involved in spiritual practices were more likely to have developed a vocabulary to describe and help pass on this knowledge. Much in the way that scientific terms have become generally used in society today, terms stemming from religious/spiritual practice were adopted by bugei, and often appear in writings on the subject. This does not mean that the arts were directly influenced by the practices, but to an outsider, this may appear to be the case.

Another factor that seems relevant is the role of religious buildings in community life. Markets, festivals, village meetings - all of them could be held within temple or shrine precincts. In Japan, larger temples were also used for a variety of civic and private functions, including lodging visiting dignitaries, makeshift barracks for military forces, artist's studios, dance performances, administrative centres and so on. They were also ideal places for the practice of martial arts. Even the simplest temple or shrine in Japan would include a flattened area of beaten down earth that would make a suitable practice area. Unlike western churches and cathedrals, temples and shrines usually consisted of a number of discrete structures within the grounds, with plenty of open space in between. Many included sub-temples which themselves consisted of a series of buildings. This physical organisation was highly suitable for the promotion of a whole range of activities that might have no direct connection with the teachings of the temple/shrine itself, and brings us to the subject of proximity.

The Japanese martial traditions have grown up in close proximity to religious practices, and the creation of fixed kata or forms, may even have originated as ritual dances performed at Shinto shrines. The oldest traditions seems to have been passed on within families of shrine officials, and there are many accounts of the founders of different traditions going into seclusion in shrines or temples to refine their arts. 

Additionally, (especially, but not exclusively, in the latter part of the Edo period and the beginning of Meiji), there were several influential figures who practiced Zen alongside their swordsmanship. Other swordsmen were of other religious or philosophical persuasions - although this may have coloured their teachings, it doesn't necessarily imbue the arts with spiritual content. The terminology and/or conceptual underpinnings of their preferred spiritual disciplines may have been used a means of explaining concepts within the art - which could lead to some confusion for those familiar with the art chiefly from writings on it.
Katsu Kaishu, an important political figure of the Meiji Restoration,
swordsman and Zen practitioner, brushed this: 理事忘遠心 : Mind far away, theory and practice forgotten.
(Courtesy of/

Much of this seems to have been taken as evidence of spiritual content, and as we are separated by several hundred years, it is difficult to view it from an accurate perspective, but I think it would be safer to say that it speaks of proximity, rather than evidence that martial disciplines can function as vehicles for spiritual development.

The 'spiritual' in the arts
Morally ambivalent swordsmanship is the subject of 'The Sword of Doom'.

Of course, the very terminology used by the arts does much to reinforce the impression of spiritual content, and certainly much of it does refer to the mysterious world of the mental and subconscious. Concepts such as will, spirit, ki, hara, do indeed speak of something beyond the physical - but this does not make it spiritual, however nice it might be to think so.

However, training these qualities might have benefits beyond the merely practical realm of fighting, and this is what the early developers of the modern budo disciplines clearly felt. Practicing these arts brings about valuable changes in behavioural/psychological/emotional areas, even if these are by-products - it is clear that writers in 18th century Japan recognized this and were trying to position swordsmanship as something more than just a practical skill for fighting. We can see several works that criticize swordsmanship of other schools as 'animalistic' or 'savage' - which was Neo-Confucian terminology for learning which was not concerned with moral development on a Confucian path - as well as arguments that show how swordsmanship can be a vehicle for this kind of development - the Great Path - leading towards enlightenment or sagehood.

Interestingly, at least one writer also argued that although swordsmanship was, in itself, a minor art, the same could also be said for sutra reading and meditation. Simply engaging in mechanical tasks would not lead to spiritual development, but that once one was on a spiritual path, any discipline could be practiced as a vehicle for furthering development on the path.

On the other hand...

... any path is what you make it.

As Shimada Toranosuke (incidentally the teacher of Katsu Kaishu, whose calligraphy is shown above) famously put it... 'The sword is the mind; if the mind is not correct, the sword will not be correct. To study the sword, first study the mind.' This 'mind' is the Japanese kokoro, a concept that resists exact definition, but which lies close to the root of much of Japanese thinking. Sometimes translated as 'heart-mind', it is often set in opposition to the intellect, and contains elements of feeling and sub-concious processes. There is even something of a moral element in it. In the sense that spiritual teachings also, ultimately, aim to affect the kokoro, this does offer support to claims of spiritual content in the martial arts, but once again, I would think it safer to say that there are parallels and points of intersection, rather than make any grandiose claims. 

For film buffs, of course, Shimada Toranosuke, played by Mifune Toshiro, and the amoral killer, Ryunosuke meet in The Sword of Doom (Daibosatsu Tōge), giving an interesting look at the role of skill and morality in the sword. For those of you who have always wondered what happens after the final frame of the movie, you might like to know that there were at least two other film versions of the same film. These were trilogies, with Part One of both covering the same story as The Sword of Doom. Parts 2 & 3 cover the further adventures of Ryunosuke. Oh, and of course the novel on which it was based runs to about 20 volumes. I believe the author died before he had brought it to a conclusive finish...but I digress....

Sunday, 22 January 2012

The Master Dragon Painters

Kano Tanyu: ceiling painting, Unryu, Myoshinji Temple, Kyoto

Dragons have been depicted in Japan in a variety of different media, but the one that has produced some of the most powerful dragon art, reflecting the mysterious qualities of the dragon itself, is sumi-e. Viewing dragons can be a bit of a hit or miss affair - so here is a quick overview, with a few of the more notable artists' work.

Dragon imagery in Japan has a particularly close connection with Buddhism, particularly Zen, and the most striking images are often to be found in (or originally belonged to) Zen temples. These large scale works are typically found either on ceilings or on sliding doors or fusuma, and these two types of painting usually follow slightly different conventions in their depiction of dragons. A substantial number of hanging scrolls were also painted of dragons, and these tended to follow the same conventions as the fusuma-e.

In its connection with Buddhism, the symbolism exists on a number of levels - it was regarded as a protector of Buddhist law, and is often depicted on ceilings for this reason. Of course, they are closely associated with water, and it is said that a dragon can call up the clouds, and they are often painted as unryu or dragon in the clouds. It is a particular characteristic of fusuma-e dragons that their bodies are partly obscured by clouds - similarly, it is impossible for an initiate to fully grasp the nature of esoteric teachings (and of truth itself) without long, hard training, making them a powerful reminder of the depth and mystery of the traditions they represent.

Ceiling dragons, on the other hand, tend to be fully visible, painted within a circle, often on the bare boards of the ceiling, or with some accompanying clouds, often outside the circle. The body of the dragon remains unobscured. These dragons were painted in situ (in th egood old days, that is), the ink probably mixed with animal glue nikawa, making it possible to work upside down, and greatly increasing its permanency.

Kano Mitsunobu - Naki-ryu in Shokokuji Temple,
The ceilings themselves are often slightly domed – which is not only necessary to give the appearance of being flat (apparently), but which also gives rise to the phenomenon of the naki-ryu or roaring dragon. This term refers to the acoustic properties of the ceilings, which creates a peculiar echo if you stand in the right place and clap your hands.

The ceilings are also sometimes referred to as Happo nirami no ryu - or dragon glaring in 8 directions. This is a result of an effect similar to the well-known WWI recruitment poster of Kitchener (and Uncle Sam) pointing directly out of the picture at the viewer.   In the case of dragons, this can prove even more dramatic as the direction of the dragon's coils appears to move as you walk around the hall.

A sketch of one of the 140 dragons
It seems that many temples have dragon ceilings - and they are not limited to Zen temples, though they are, perhaps most common there, but they are often in buildings that are not generally open to the public. In Kyoto, the most representative examples were painted by painters of the Kano school, perhaps most notably Kano Tanyu, who reportedly engaged in two years of study before embarking on the painting on the ceiling of Myoshinji - the abbot reportedly wanted him to be able to see, and hear, dragons before painting this one. Whatever the truth of it, it is certainly a marvelous work. He is also (jointly) responsible for the 140 dragon ceiling of Taiyuin Mausoleum at Nikko.

There are also several modern versions – although they are testaments to the technical skill of the artists, I find them rather lacking in dragonish character, and painted a little too literally for my taste. Perhaps the mellowing influence of a few hundred years would change my mind.

The dragons painted on sliding doors are quite different in character from their counterparts on the ceilings – they show the inchoate elemental qualities of the dragon- large heads looming out of the mist, the coils of their bodies disappearing in the rain and clouds. They are unknowable denizens of a world we cannot understand; real unryu, and in many depictions, the clouds form a greater part of the work than the dragon. The subtlety of gradation and the dynamism of the swirling clouds makes sumi the perfect medium for these works, and the power of the best examples is undeniable.
Kaiho Yusho, Unryu, Kenninji Temple, Kyoto

When mounted on screens, they are often paired with the tiger, but on sliding doors, they may cover all four walls of a room. Although the dragon’s head usually provides the focal point, the swirling clouds, crashing waves and the dark sky are also important elements in the composition. On some doors the dragon is not visible at all, or else there is just a clawed foot or a glimpse of a scaled back.

Kaiho Yusetsu (Yusho's son), Myoshinji Temple
The other notable feature of these works that separates them from their foreign cousins is the face – with its bald head, hairy nostrils and buck teeth, the dragon is possessed of distinctly human features, and not always flattering ones at that. Whereas the western dragon has a lean predatory air, the Japanese dragon combines its wisdom with a knowledge of human weakness, giving some of these works an otherworldly and sometimes rather strange atmosphere. The works of the Kaiho school in particular are sometimes quite strange.

Maruyama Okyo - slightly later than the other works depicted
here, but very impressive all the same.
Ultimately, these dragon paintings still convey something quite special. The reason, I think, is that they combine elements of the schools of thought that deeply influenced the medium – sumi-e – and the qualities of the dragon itself. Daoism and Buddhism both seek or posit an explanation of the nature of the world. The development of ink painting is closely linked to these traditions, and something of their beliefs about the transmutability of energy and form became linked to this particular medium of artistic expression. The dragon itself also echoes the twisting, multiform flow of energy that can be seen at work in clouds, water, the growth of trees and the folds of mountains. It is the theme par-excellence of sumi-e, expressing in a visual form the pattern of our world.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Happy Year of the Dragon

A very quick post wishing all of a you a Happy New Year, and a thank-you for your support and kind comments. I hope that you will continue to read and find what I put up here interesting...

As some of you know, the Japanese New Year is a mix of the Chinese and western styles, taking the Chinese horoscope and applying it on a western calendar, which means that 2012 is the Year of the Dragon!

This is a detail of a dragon (I should say the dragon) by Musashi - a very fine example of his work, but not very well-known.