Hara-Kiri : Death of a Samurai

HaraKiri Death of a Samurai posterQuite excited, learned recently that Takashi Miike‘s, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, will be available here in the UK fairly soon. Right now all I know is that it’s an adaptation of Masaki Kobayashi‘s 1962 film Harakiri, which is one of my all time favourites.

The original film is set in 17th-century Japan, where an era of peace causes the Shogunate to breakup the various warrior clans, throwing thousands of samurai out of work and into poverty. Such a fate is abhorrent to a Samurai, and many prefer ritual suicide (hara kiri) than to live their lives destitute.

The film tells the story of an old warrior, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), who arrives seeking admittance to the house of a feudal lord in order to commit ritual suicide.

The reason behind Hanshiro’ arrival is far more complex, as his real motive is to exact revenge against the house. Whilst preparing to commit the act, Hanshiro recounts, in flashback, to the various assembled members of the house, the tragic story of his son-in-law  who was forced to sell his real sword to support his sick wife and child. The story comes to a head when it is revealed his son in law was forced to commit ritual suicide with a dull bamboo blade when he came to the same house seeking work.

The original film was brilliant, and I’m really excited to see how Miike has re-imagined the story. There’s a trailer here.

Do what you love …

Rob wrote a wonderful piece earlier this week on Passion, personal brand and doing what you love. We’ve both spent time reflecting, individually, on how our paths led us to Talis and the work we are now doing. We’ve also discussed this subject on a number of occasions and I think we’ve both reached the same conclusion – life is too short to waste it away doing something you dont love. It takes time to come to a realisation like this, and sadly, it often require some external event to force you to stop and reflect on your life, how you got to where you are and most importantly where is it your heading. I know some people describe this as a kind of awakening, and I guess if you honestly believe that life is a journey then it’s moments such as these that can feel like a fork in the road…

One path leads back to the world that you know, its the world that you’ve become used to, it’s the world in which you don’t have to love what you do to get by, it feels comfortable because there is no risk, you don’t have to deal with the unknown too often, you don’t have to rock the boat. In many ways you’ve already reached a destination … or is it more true to say that you’ve reached an empasse?

The other path leads to somewhere else, unfortunately you don’t know what’s down there. You don’t necessarily even know where you’re going. Here’s the thing though … maybe you don’t have to care about the destination, maybe it’s less about the where, and much more about the how?

I guess that’s how I see things these days. There’s a part of me that believes that if do what I love, then it won’t feel like my life is just slipping away, one monotonous day to the next. I lived my life like that once, it’s so easy to do, you become so used to it that you don’t even realise that something is wrong … I actually had to come to within a heartbeat of losing my life before I realised that life is far to precious a gift to waste like that. To spend so much of it doing something that I felt completely indifferent towards, even hated at times … Isn’t it fascinating how the the worst prisons are the ones we create for ourselves?

There’s two quotes I want to end with, the first is from Paul Graham’s essay entitled How to do what you love, I remember reading it a couple of years ago, and although I don’t agree with some of it, it’s still a wonderful piece. His essay ends with this obeservation:

Finding work you love is very difficult. Most people fail. Even if you succeed, it’s rare to be free to work on what you want till your thirties or forties. But if you have the destination in sight you’ll be more likely to arrive at it. If you know you can love work, you’re in the home stretch, and if you know what work you love, you’re practically there.

The second quote is much shorter, but far more profound, you see for me loving what I do is a part of a much greater truth, one that underpins everything I’ve said, and I think almost everything I now hold dear:

There is life in every breath

Uesugi Kenshin

I’m currently reading Zen and the Samurai which is a beautifully written work, much of it is devoted to anecdotes about the lives many famous Samurai and how Zen deeply influenced them. The book makes reference to the beautiful verse below which was composed by the Samurai General Uesugi Kenshin on his death bed. It was a practise amongst many Samurai to write a verse in either Chinese or Japanese at the moment of death, this was Kenshin’s Parting of Life Verse:

Even a life-long prosperity is but one cup of sake;
A life of forty-nine years is passed in a dream;
I know not what life is, nor death.
Year in year out-all but a dream.
Both Heaven and Hell are left behind;
I stand in the moonlit dawn,
Free from clouds of attachment.

… exquisite.

The Life Giving Sword

  Weapons are instruments of ill omen. The Way of Heaven
  finds them repugnant. The Way of Heaven is to use them
  only when necessary.

Finally finished reading The Life Giving Sword by Yagyu Munenori last night. The version I have is translated into English by William Scott and is and absolutely wonderful read. It is considered to be one of the most important and influential texts on Japanese Martial Arts. Scott’s introduction, which is a third of the book, is essential reading and provides, in great detail, the historical context in which this book was written. He not only provides an insight into the life of Munenori but also into life in Japan almost four hundred years ago.

It was also nice to see, in Scott’s account, references to Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings – which to my mind is another seminal text on Japanese Swordsmanship. What’s amazing is that both these men were alive at the same time, and yet they never met. It’s widely acknowledged that Musashi coveted Munenori’s position as Official Swords Instructor to the Tokugawa Shogunate but was never able to gain it over his great rival.

What sets this text apart from others is that it combines the technical refinements of Shikage-Ryu with the philosophical and psychological insights of Zen Buddhism, which Munenori was greatly influenced by through his close friendship with the famous Zen priest Takuan Soho ( author of The Unfettered Mind ). In fact, having read some of Soho’s essays,  I’m convinced that this Buddhist spirituality is reflected in the whole idea of the "life giving sword" – this notion that you can control an opponent through your own spiritual readiness to fight. It is further reflected in Munenori’s mastery of restraint and diplomacy through which he became a trusted advisor to the Shoganate – and whilst this might surprise some it really is an insight into the most personal thoughts on non-attachment and non-violence of one of the greatest of all master swordsmen.

It is missing the point to think that the martial arts is
solely in cutting a man down. It is not in cutting people down;
it is in killing evil. It is in the stratagem of killing the
evil of one man and giving life to ten thousand...truly the sword
that kills one man will be the blade that gives others life.

or …

In Zen there is a saying, "Beat the grass and scare up the snake".
Just as you beat the grass to scare up the snake that lies within,
there is a technique of suprising your opponent to cause his mind
to become agitated. Deception is doing something unexpected by your
opponent, and suprising him. This is the martial arts.

Once surprised, your opponent's mind will be taken, and his skill
undone. Raising your fan or hand in front of him will also take your
opponent's mind. Tossing aside the sword you are carrying is also a
martial art. If you have obtained the skill of No-Sword, what will
a sword be to you? 

Whilst his words can seem cryptic and inpenetrable at times there is no doubting Munenori’s immense skill as a swordsman, and yet apart from one instance there is no recorded account of him ever killing another in a duel. That one incident though is legendary,and remembered to this day:

... a desperate force of about twenty to thirty men ... broke into
the Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada's camp. The Shogun's men were thrown
into confusion as the assailants, almost incredibly, pressed their
way to within a short distance of the shogun himself. There, however,
they confronted a middle-aged samurai, who was standing calmly in front
of the shogun's horse. The man stepped forward and, with shocking speed,
dexterity, and grace, killed seven of the attackers, giving the shogun's
guards a chance to regroup ... the middle aged samurai was Yagyu Tajima
no kami Munenori.

I often find it interesting to contrast the lives of Musashi and Munenori, the former’s fame was gained through numerous duels and was regarded as an outstanding swordsman having killed so many, and the latter maintained an aire of invincibility without ever having fought a duel. It seems paradoxical. For some odd reason this reminds me of something Plutarch once wrote when he compared the Lives of Numa and Lycurgus

Virtue rendered the one so respectable to deserve a throne, 
and other so great as to be above it.

I know it doesn’t quite fit but it certainly resonates. I thoroughly recommend this book, it’s deeply philosophical and deeply profound and will change your understanding of the nature of any martial art.

p.s. and no I guess it’s not a coincidence that my new sword arrived the other day 🙂

Bushido: The Soul of Japan

One of the most exquisite texts I’ve ever read is Inazo Nitobe’ Bushido: The Soul of Japan. He wrote this book as Japan underwent deep transformations of its traditional lifestyle while being forged (painfully) into a modern nation. When a western observer asked him about the basis of morality in Japan Nitobe thought long and hard on the subject – this book was the result of his meditations. It is beautifully written, and many ways is written to provide a western audience with a better understanding of Japan, Nitobe went to great lengths to use the Bible and other Western literature as examples of common points of reference, to explain the origins and sources of Bushido, its character and teachings, its influence, and its continuity and permanence.

I recently purchased this as an AudioBook on iTunes, and have been listening to it on my journey to and from work. I recall how much the book influenced me when I first read it, so much so that I fell in love with the romantic view of the Samurai Tradition – I even went as far as learning how to make swords! (something some of colleagues at Talis are beginning to worry about, since I bought a couple more at the weekend to restore).

To give you a sense of both Nitobe’s eloquence, and also the profound wisdom in his words, I have copied below his examination of Giri, or Duty. Regardless of how many times I read this, or listen to it, his words still have a profound effect on me.

Giri primarily meant no more than duty, and I dare say 
its etymology was derived from the fact that in our conduct,
say to our parents, though love should be the only motive, 
lacking that, there must be some other authority to enforce 
filial piety; and they formulated this authority in Giri. Very 
rightly did they formulate this authority—Giri—since if love 
does not rush to deeds of virtue, recourse must be had to 
man's intellect and his reason must be quickened to convince 
him of the necessity of acting aright. The same is true of any
other moral obligation. The instant Duty becomes onerous. 
Right Reason steps in to prevent our shirking it. Giri thus 
understood is a severe taskmaster, with a birch-rod in his hand 
to make sluggards perform their part. It is a secondary power in
ethics; as a motive it is infinitely inferior to the Christian doctrine 
of love, which should be the law. I deem it a product of the 
conditions of an artificial society—of a society in which accident 
of birth and unmerited favour instituted class distinctions, in which 
the family was the social unit, in which seniority of age was of 
more account than superiority of talents, in which natural affections
had often to succumb before arbitrary man-made customs. Because
of this very artificiality, Giri in time degenerated into a vague sense
of propriety called up to explain this and sanction that,—as, for 
example, why a mother must, if need be, sacrifice all her other 
children in order to save the first-born; or why a daughter must sell 
her chastity to get funds to pay for the father's dissipation, and the 
like. Starting as Right Reason, Giri has, in my opinion, often stooped 
to casuistry. It has even degenerated into cowardly fear of censure. 
I might say of Giri what Scott wrote of patriotism, that "as it is the 
fairest, so it is often the most suspicious, mask of other feelings." 
Carried beyond or below Right Reason, Giri became a monstrous 
misnomer. It harbored under its wings every sort of sophistry and 

On the subject of swords, Nitobe devoted an entire chapter. I have had an obsession with Japanese Swords for many years now. I used to own a large collection some of which I restored myself before selling them on. There are a few I still have, I only kept those that that I have a profound sentimental attachment to, so much so that my friends (especially Richard, Alex and Alan as well as the rest of my family) all laugh at the fact that regardless of where I am in the house, I have this small Tantō blade which seemingly follows me around everywhere, I carry it unconsciously – I guess when I say it like that it does sound a bit scary. Anyway I digress, the point was that Nitobe’ opening paragraph in his Chapter on Swords describes the strong attachment between a Samurai and his sword in a way that no-one else has ever come close to articulating, in fact it’s very poetic:

Bushido made the sword its emblem of power and prowess.
When Mahomet proclaimed that "the sword is the key of 
Heaven and of Hell," he only echoed a Japanese sentiment.
Very early the samurai boy learned to wield it. It was a
momentous occasion for him when at the age of five he was
apparelled in the paraphernalia of samurai costumes placed
upon a go-board[1] and initiated into the rights of the military
professions by having thrust into his girdle a real sword instead
of the toy dirk with which he had been playing. After this first
ceremony of adoptio per arma, he was no more to be seen
outside his father's gates without this badge of his status, even
though it was usually substituted for everyday wear by a gilded
wooden dirk. Not many years pass before he wears constantly
the genuine steel, though blunt, and then the sham arms are
thrown aside and with enjoyment keener than his newly acquired
blades, he marches out to try their edge on wood and stone. When
he reaches man's estate, at the age of fifteen, being given
independence of action, he can now pride himself upon the
possession of arms sharp enough for any work. The very possession
of the dangerous instrument imparts to him a feeling and an air of
self-respect and responsibility. "He beareth not the sword in vain.
What he carries in his belt is a symbol of what he carries in his
mind and heart, -- loyalty and honour. The two swords, the longer
and the shorter, -- called respectively daito and shoto or katana and
wakizashi, -- never leave his side. When at home, they grace the
most conspicuous place in the study or parlour; by night they guard
his pillow within easy reach of his hand. Constant companions, they
are beloved, and proper names of endearment given them. Being 
venerated, they are well-nigh worshipped.

If you want to understand Bushido, or the very nature of Japan, or even if you just want to have your own ideas of morality and ethics challenged then you should read this book. In fact you can read the entire book online at Project Gutenburg, here.