Saturday, 31 December 2016

Happy 300th, Jakuchu

I remember being told once - by an art teacher, speaking in the way that cultural pedants often do, that Ito jakuchu was popular with westerners because he was easy to understand, while 'real' Japanese appreciated a more unique expression of their cultural heritage.

If we put aside the fact that Jakuchu was one of the most popular painters of his time, (although it is also true that his name and works were rescued from obscurity partly through the efforts of the American art collector, Joe Price), the number of visitors at the show of Jakuchu's work, Jakuchu and Kyoto, that was on at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art from November to December of this year, certainly puts the lie to that assertion.

Numbered or timed ticketting has not been adopted here, so if you want to visit a popular exhibition, you take your chances and line up (if you're unlucky) or otherwise shuffle round at a dismal speed with the crowds, or flit around some metres away from the glass, hoping to find a gap that allows more than a glimpse of the works.

 Although I didn't have to queue, this was the most crowded exhibition I have been to for a long time, and so I opted for the latter.

I flitted past the rows of chickens and cranes and concentrated on just a couple of works - mainly just one, in fact , Elephant and Whale, which I had never seen in the flesh before, and which was the main reason for my visit.

Jakuchu may fairly be calleds a master of ink - the effects he could obtain through brushwork, both careful and dynamic, and with variations in the type of ink itself, make the term 'monochrome' a misnomer. This  painting is a good example: although it is executed in shades of ink, to say it is black and white or grey is not an adequate description. The ink has produced a warm and glowing surface that is as alive or perhaps even more so, than his coloured works.

On the left of the pair of six leaved screens the dark form of a whale ploughs through the sea, the smooth line of it's back visible against the wave forms so distinctive of Jakuchu - a powerful jet of water blasts upwards, disappearing out of the picture, to be answered by the trumpetting call of the elephant in the other screen (or at least, a friendly-looking wave of its trunk). Between them lies the sea, like a snowy wasteland.

Indeed, visually, it is very much like a field of snow, gently undulating pale greys, a neutral field on which the action is set. Anyone familiar with Jakuchu's work will be aware of the amount of detail he could cram into his pictures; however, his black and white works tended to leave the background white. Yet this blankness served as a field on which the imagination may project the background he did not paint himself, like an afterimage. His larger works, typically, do not use this approach. Perhaps he judged the size was too great, and perhaps he sought to avoid the deadening effect of such large patches being left unfilled. In fact, his larger works often show extreme attention to enlivening the background, for preserving it as a living field, showing an almost tactile concern with what might otherwise be 'dead space'. This is most evident in his mosaic inspired and 'pointillist' works. While being less satisfying as paintings, this aspect is very much in evidence, and The Elephant and Whale seems, in a less defined (and less exacting way) to follow suit.

Close up of the waves in the 'Whale'
Jakuchu's later works seemed to lose none of the dynamism of his earlier years, perhaps because he came into his own as a painter sometime in his forties, but uncharacteristic traces of underpainting and overlap in brushstrokes may be seen in the left hand (whale) screen. This is always interesting, as it allows the viewer a better idea of the artist's process of working. In smaller pieces, there is almost no sign of the initial lines drawn in pale ink - they have been covered over precisely by subsequent painting, leaving only what the artist wanted to be seen.

This cannot be seen as a lessening of the artist's powers – the fine work on the right hand screen, including the elephants eye and the leaves above its head, show as perfect a degree of control as any of his earlier pieces – the roughness on the whale side is something else, perhaps an expression of the raw power of the leviathan.

Whales are not often depicted in Japanese art - Jakuchu painted at least one other version of this screen himself – an entry for a 1928 catalogue of the Osaka Art Club includes this picture:

I have also seen a small version of the whale by one of his admirers/pupils. I think Jakuchu touches something quite deep with his painting, perhaps mores than many of his other works, and is well worth making the time to seek out and enjoy.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Living Confucianism – a daimyo's iaijutsu

The actor Amachi Shigeru receiving instruction in
Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Yamauchi-ha

Virtually any field of human endeavour and achievement is influenced by more than just the need for practicality. It is this aspect, the human and cultural dimension that, as much as anything else, has shaped and distinguished the different styles of classical martial arts. The wants and needs of societies as well as individuals leave their marks on each style, and these may be quite different how we imagine them.

It is axiomatic in the world of Japanese martial arts that ‘if the kokoro (mind) is not correct, the sword will not be correct’. While kokoro (and mind, for that matter) is a term that is open to many interpetations, let us take it , in this case, as being ‘attitude’ or ‘way of thinking’. This, of course, begs the question, What is the correct attitude?

The answer may not be as simple as it seems, and the dimensions that it touches may be the reason that, on and off, so much of the discourse on martial arts has been flavoured with large helpings of philosophy, mysticism and spirituality. While in some ryu-ha this tends towards the religious (especially in those schools which maintain a close connection with particular shrines and/or deities); in others, it is more philosphically or morally inclined. This connection seems to date from early in the development in swordsmanship, although given the prominence of religion in medieval societies, this is not surprising.

In modern budo, the aspect of moral/spiritual training has continued, with disciplines such as kendo and kyudo stating their aim as being a honing of the human spirit by using martially flavoured practice as a tool. (It must be admitted that this may not be readily apparent to the casual observer).

It is rare, however, to see these influences addressed explicitly and lucidly by advanced practitioners of a pre-modern style in any more than a cursory way, in English, at least, which is why it can be so interesting when they do appear.

One such work is ‘Muso-Jikiden Eishin Ryu. The Iai Forms and Oral Traditions of the Yamauchi Branch’ by Yamakoshi Masaki, Tsukimoto Kazutake and translated by Steven Trenson. Although I have no connection with this style, I found it shed some valuable light on the aims and functions of this ryu-ha, recognizing its place in a society that had moved on from the age of war but still found value in the old practices.

Muso-Jikiden Eishin Ryu – what’s it all about?
What is interesting about this ryu-ha is that it was an elite practice, used by members of the Yamauchi Family (the daimyo of Tosa, in Shikoku – also famous as the birthplace of Sakamoto Ryoma, who did not practice this style) and higher ranking members of the administration. It was deeply Neo-Confucian in nature, and represented this philosophy in its theory of practice. Interestingly, it was well aware of the need for the discipline to provide more than skill at arms, especially for members of  a class whose duties were largely bureaucratic rather than military. If anything, it appeared to look down on such a simplistic view of sworsmanship. Indeed, compared with the ‘way’ of governing, or of service to one’s lord, the ‘way’ of swordsmanship, and of any craft or skill, was generally regarded as being of lesser value. The ability to govern a domain or command an army were of far more importance than the ability to wield a sword. However, they were not entirely unconnected.

The bushi of the Edo period were the heads of society, and they took their role seriously. For them, the idea of a virtuous government and leading by example were important: learning necessarily included the cultivation of moral virtue. Iaijutsu embodied this attitude, and it also provided a pedagogic framework.

While for normal folk, moral virtue meant following rules – rules that supposedly embodied the Principle of the Universe (or the Dao), for the higher ranks there was more to it. The practice of iaijutsu ‘provided the attitude and method of how to cultivate, by themselves, the necessary virtues to fulfil their duties.’ Following the Neo-Confucian teaching of kakubutsu-chichi, which can be rather ponderously translated as the expansion of knowledge of the inherent principles of phenomena attaining to the principle of the universe. In other words, in order to understand this principle, you have to know as much as you can about, well, just about everything. In terms of iaijutsu, this meant not only questioning the principles inherent in the forms, but also reflection on the purposes of practice itself.

Beyond this, was the method of contemplation, which was, indeed, the primary method of cultivation in iaijutsu. Shuitsu-muteki, not wandering off, referred to an awareness involving all the senses and faculties rather than a single-minded attention, in the same way that you would notice who had come into a room while you were watching television. The purpose of this was to gradually calm the mind and allow one’s true, which is to say good, benevolent, nature to come to the fore.

Kashima Shinto Ryu iai

Certain practices, (such as tameshigiri) are not included in the school because they work against this process. By promoting a sense of satisfaction in one’s cutting performance, one is increasing the passions that surround your true nature, thus making it that much more difficult to allow it to surface. The nature of test cutting itself was also though to be deleterious to character building, and could lead to a cold, cruel character. Indeed, a danger was seen in the development of technical skills if they were not accompanied by a corresponding moral and intellectual growth.

Of course, the devil is in the details, but even from this cursory view, this gives us some insight into how the martial arts might have been viewed by their practitioners during the Edo period – perhaps in a very different way from how we imagine tham to have been.  The authors note that the aim of iaijutsu was to help a practitioner understand the meaning of his or her own life and not to retreat from responsibilities, thus embodying the dictum ‘First know, then act.’

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Sanada Maru - a family of strategists

Sakai Masato in the leading role as Sanada Nobushige (i.e. Yukimura)

The beginning of every year sees  a new year long historical drama series starting on the state sponsored TV channel NHK.

Although these annual series, collectively known as Taiga drama, are of variable quality, and tend not to be strictly historically accurate, they can offer interesting interpretations of the period they deal with, putting some imaginative flesh on the historical bones of the situation.   

This year, with Sanada Maru,  it is the turn of the Sanada family, whose best known member, Sanada Nobushige (more commonly known by his fictional name, Yukimura) is the star of this series. The title, Sanada Maru is the name of the defensive position or fort constructed by Sanada Nobushige, for the defense of Osaka castle during the Winter campaign of 1614-15

The Sanada clan was a fairly small clan in the scheme of things, but is famous for its pivotal role in the Siege of Osaka (1615) which, despite the eventual Tokugawa victory, was a close run thing. Unlike some of the larger, more famous families, the Sanada, by and large, were content to look after their own affairs and attempt to maintain their own territory. They successfully defied the Tokugawa on several occasions and managed to thrive despite the difficult situation they found themselves in after the deaths of Takeda Katsuyori and Oda Nobunaga. All of this required some nifty footwork, and Sanada Masayuki (Nobushige’s father)’s ability to manipulate and respond to the changing political landscape is central to these early episodes.

The Sanada Family

The interaction between the two Sanada brothers, Nobushige and his older brother Nobuyuki, is one point of interest. Although it was Nobuyuki who would ultimately thrive, he is usually little mentioned in accounts of the Sanada family until after the pre-Sekigahara split (engineered by his father to ensure that one branch of the family would survive no matter who won the confrontation between Tokugawa Ieyasu and The Toyotomi loyalists.

Nobushige and Nobuyuki (Oizumi Yo)

Sanada Maru depicts them as being close, but of differing temperaments – the intuitive Nobushige and the careful, thoughtful Nobuyuki. ‘Put you two together and you’d make a complete person’, says their father.  Of course, it is Nobushige who will later go on to win fame as the successful defender of Osaka castle (in the winter campaign) against the forces of the Tokugawa coalition, and only narrowly missing taking Tokugawa Ieyasu’s life and changing the course of history.

Kusakari Masao as Sanada Masayuki

And what of Sanada Masayuki? Both in reality and as depicted in this drama, he was an unusual man. Overshadowed in the public mind by the deeds of his son, Nobushige, he seems to have possessed an unusual degree of strategic acumen, some of which appears to have been passed down to him and which he, in turn, passed on to his sons. (Although Nobuyuki is not famous for his military record, he proved a very effective administrator, being promoted into a higher level fief as a result of his efforts).

Why this is so fascinating is that the great tacticians and strategists of history are usually brilliant individuals, not the result of a process designed to teach them strategy. In Japan, as well, the majority of outstanding leaders did not succeed in passing their abilities on to their children, and those that rose to power often did so largely by their own efforts. Sengoku Japan shows us a whole host of leaders that emerged unexpectedly to become powerful players in the conflicts of the time, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Takeda Shingen, Uesugi Kenshin…but the Sanadas were, from the start, a different proposition.

Both China and Japan boasted schools of strategy, (or generalship, which might be a more accurate description – from what we can tell, much of their content involved lower levels of organisation of troop movements and logistics, rather than what we think of as battlefield tactics) but we have very little knowledge of how this was taught and how it was meant to be learned (not necessarily the same thing). A look into this process, fictional and impressionistic as it may be, gives us a chance to muse on how such knowledge was passed down – the apprenticeship of generalship.

Sanada Masayuki (National Diet Library)

As he appears on the small screen, Masayuki is shown as keeping his focus on aims while disregarding appearances.  Thick-skinned, he has an appreciation for the realities of war, and the lengths that are necessary to keep his family and followers safe, while maneuvering to establish a degree of independence. The drama shows rather well the dark arts of manipulation and treachery  that he is not afraid to use. He makes it clear that both reasoning and intuition are necessary for war. But despite his cold calculation, his warmth of character makes him very different from Kuroda Kanbei, the subject of the Taiga drama of 2014, and another of the premier gunshi of the era, and whose son, Kuroda Nagamasa, although a powerful and capable general, did not have his father’s gift for strategy.

Interestingly, it is Kanbei’s sometime ward and vassal, Goto Motosugu, (who by some accounts bore an antipathy towards Kuroda Jnr.) who would be Sanada Nobushige’s staunchest ally in the defense of Osaka Castle. The Sanada family was also closely connected with that other famous gunshi, Yamamoto Kansuke, and Sanada Masayuki served alongside him as fellow members of Takeda Shingen’s general staff (Masayuki was the youngest of the three Sanada brothers serving Shingen). Kansuke himself, although a well-known figure to later generations, left so little concrete evidence of his life that many historians considered him a fictitious character greated by later chroniclers of the exploits of Shingen. It was only relatively recently that documents were discovered corroborating his existence.

With Sanada Maru, NHK has now based a Taiga drama on the lives of each of these three strategists; I'm hoping this will be the best.

For more on Sanada Nobushige: Wisdom from Samurai High School

For more on Kuroda Kanbei: see here for a little on what he was up to around the time of the Battle of Sekigahara plus the Musashi connection and here for a not very serious look at his management style