Dover Book

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    Oh my! What a challenging book. I am truly proud of myself for not only getting through it, but understanding it, and by half-way through, thoroughly enjoying every minute of it! I even began to recognize all those Japanese names, of which there were seemingly millions, most of which began with a "K" or "Y." It is set in Medieval Japan, late 1300s to middle 1400s. It is about a brave Samurai caught in the midst of ongoing internal power struggles, wars and terrible, gruesome violence. It is an adventure, with bits of wry humor, complete with ghosts and spirits, myth and magic, lots of history, lots of "cutting belly," (the chosen form of suicide which was considered honorable) and it is also the most incredible romance. I totally fell in love with this story! It was kinda like Camelot—in Japan!
    James S. de Benneville was an American who specialized in retelling Japanese legends. He speaks in his Preface about how important it was to Japanese story-tellers to remain historically correct, while adding their own embellishment to the storyline. Kōdanshi means lecturer, and kōdan means dialogue-lecture, or story. Their version differs from that of the temple scribes, and Benneville says it is their version which is more historically accurate. (He supplies several very condensed alternate versions in the Appendices.) But really, does it matter at this point? Were King Arthur and Launcelot real people? As in myths and religion, all are a mix of fact and "embellishment." Whatever. This one is most entertaining.
    I will say up front that the only thing that really was a problem for me is the fact that there is no glossary of Japanese terms, and the book was full of them. Benneville often would supply a translation when he used the word at first. I should have written them all down as I read, but I didn't. Between that and the names that all look alike, and trying to figure out if he is talking about a town or a river or a person—the first section was truly painful. But after that, which really set up the situation for the rest of the book, it was like the fog cleared away. I soon knew mostly who was whom and what was what, and if I forgot, I could quickly flip back to double-check, because I began to remember where each person was introduced. The warring factions, well, I still am not sure I understood all of that, but, hell, I can't keep those straight here in 2017 either. But the point is, I plugged along and it paid off. I am telling you this because I want you to read the book. If you are not a skilled reader, I would say to skip this one, but if you read like I do, please put this on your list.
    It is an extremely complicated story, even at its most condensed, plus there's all those "embellishments" I mentioned. But I will attempt to provide somewhat of a synopsis. Please note: I wasn't able to find any reviews on this story, and nothing on Wikipedia, which I normally count on to provide background material on what I review. Nothing on Benneville, either. Wikipedia does have a series on the history of Japan, but I wasn't able to find anything about the characters in the story. Much of the action is set in or near Kamakura, where modern Tokyo lies, but there is lots of travelling. These poor people covered hundreds and hundreds of grueling miles on foot in order to accomplish their goal.
    Part 1, The Houses of Oguri and Satake begins with The Kwannondō of Sasamegayatsu. It is 1408, and Prince Mitsukane is holding an assembly in his palace for the making of poems and tales. Old Tomomune goes on and on with his story. Tomomune is the Shitsuji, or Premier, of Mitsukane. Succeeding him should be his son, Ujinori, but we shall see.
    Next to tell his story is Isshiki Akihide. Remember that name, because he is the main troublemaker. I want to point out that, though the Japanese Samurai were known for honor, trustworthiness, bravery, and ethics, there is a gaping chasm between the good guys and the bad guys here. Honor would never be a word to describe most of these leaders. They are conniving, back-stabbing, greedy, and lacking in integrity. That describes both the warring leaders and many of the simple folk, too—not to be trusted by any means. Lots of thieves, scoundrels and truly miserable wretches. The contrast between them and the heroes is vast. But I have wandered . . . .
    So Isshiki Akihide wants to inch his way into his lord's favor:

Valour and wisdom he lacked. Moreover these means were too slow and painful to secure promotion. His elder brother Naokane held the important post of Provost of Kamakura town. Himself he proposed to study the character and weak points of his lord. They were nearly of an age, the two men; and the experience of Isshiki among men was of course much the greater. This made him more dangerous. He was the channel of his lord's more intimate connection with the outside world. Mitsukane trusted him.

    Isshiki then tells his story. As he finishes, the shōji (sliding screens) are blown apart and the room fills with a bright glare. Mitsukane seems unaffected, but Isshiki is in fear. To hide it, he proclaims that it is the ghost that has been causing disease and other problems for the local farmers, and calls out to see what samurai is willing to seek out the specter's source. A young man, Yuki Shichirō Ujitomo volunteers. He rides off to the shrine at Sasamegayatsu. It is dilapidated, but he goes in and prays.
    I want to point out that Buddhism was the religion practiced amongst these peoples, but they also had their whole array of spirits, demons, monsters, and dead relatives to contend with.
    Eventually an old man shows up. And he tells Ujitomo a story of a certain warrior Yoshioki, who had been betrayed, and he and his men were killed. Soon, their spirits terrorized the people. The bishop was consulted, and exorcism was done, and the shrine captured the uneasy spirits for all time. The old man points out that the problems the people are suffering now has more to do with other things.

The history of the place has nought to do with present sights and sounds. The prosperous times of Ujimitsu have passed. The days of Prince Mitsukane again are troubled. Hence the Kwannon Bosatsu is ill at ease, and flies abroad at night. Be easy of mind, for if evil counsellors be dismissed, and the people be tranquilized, all will be well again.

    Though I did not understand this when I read it the first time, now I believe it refers to Isshiki. The old man also warns that there will be orders for the shrine to be torn down, which will cause great misfortunes in the land. Then the old man, an apparition, turns with an evil leer and disappears.
    Ujitomo tries to avoid Isshiki Akihide, who accuses him of never even being near the shrine and begins to verbally abuse him. During the quarrel, Mitsukane enters. Ujitomo then proceeds to tell him the whole story. But Isshiki intercedes and gives bad advice—that the shrine should be torn down. Since Mitsukane trusts Isshiki, he agrees, and calls for the Shitsuji Norisada to undertake the task of tearing down the shrine. He pleads infirmities, but really, is afraid to tear it down as it goes against his better judgment. Mitsukane doesn't want his opinion. So, seeing that he cannot change the Prince's mind, he recommends two other men—great friends, Satake Atsumitsu and Mago Gorō Mitsushige, Lord of Oguri. Thus, the two men obey orders and do the dirty work. And for that, years of suffering begin.
    And so we jump ahead a bit. Oguri Mitsushige, still childless at age forty, is finally blessed with a son. And Kojirō Sukeshige is the finest of sons, the pride of his parents. As Sukeshige grows into a strong boy, Prince Mitsukane dies, and his son, Mochiuji succeeds him. Sukeshige is invited to serve his lord as page. He is more of a companion—entertainment to the Prince, so when Sukeshige becomes distraught and sullen, Mochiuji asks why. It is because his mother is deathly ill and he wishes to be with her. Mochiuji really doesn't care and becomes irritated. He dismisses Sukeshige, who returns home before his mother dies.
    One day father and son visit his dear friend Satake Atsumitsu. He has a beautiful young daughter—Terute-hime. At the same time, the brother-in-law of Atsumitsu is also staying with them. Yokoyama Tarō Yasuhide is a useless scoundrel and an ass. And even worse, he has his eyes on Terute. As the family is gathered, a heron swoops down on the pool and steals a carp. Atsumitsu wants revenge.
    Wanting to show off, Yokoyama offers to shoot it with bow and arrow. He misses, but then Sukeshige tries and succeeds. Angered, Yokoyama makes a further ass of himself by lecturing Sukeshige on the history of the bow and arrow. But the boy is well-educated, and corrects him.
    Atsumitsu and Mitsushige decide that Sukeshige and Terute shall become betrothed, even though she is still a young girl. But all are pleased with the match—that is, all but Yokoyama.
    Vengeance, however, is vengeance, and the houses of Oguri and Satake must fall—punishment for the destruction of the temple. Keep in mind that it was Isshiki who recommended its destruction. This man seems to be at the bottom of much of the misery suffered in this saga. Yokoyama is right there with him. And so the first house to fall is Satake, when Yokoyama murders him on a fishing trip. The only other person in the boat is the servant Dosuke, who falls in the water. Yokoyama searches for him and believes he has drowned. But he is an excellent swimmer. Dosuke attempts to report the crime, but is instead imprisoned and tortured. He lives long enough to eventually tell Sukeshige the truth about the death of Terute's father.
    The Lady Terute and her mother flee, and are lost to Sukeshige. But not forever. Meanwhile, just as in King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, Sukeshige begins gathering his Ten Valiants. They are: The Tanabe Brothers; Mito no Kotarō; The Gotō Brothers; The Kataoka Brothers, Ikeno Shōji; and The Kazama Brothers. Together and on their own, they perform the most brave and daring feats, with quite a bit of humor thrown in!
    Vengeance then comes to the House of Oguri—politics and betrayal, again, with Isshiki at the heart of the mess. There is a battle and Mitsushige commands his son to escape. Mitsushige commits suicide. Sukeshige vows to reestablish the House of Oguri. Much time passes, and after years of adventures, and numerous reunions with his wife, Terute, which result in only losing her again, Sukeshige finally has his revenge.
    By the end of this story, I felt like I had wandered the mountains of Nippon (Japan) for years, suffering as my samurai friends had done. But in many ways, it is the strength, loyalty and love of the beautiful Lady Terute the enables the reestablishment of the houses of Oguri and Satake. She is the true heroine of the tale.
    The Japanese do love their legends, and there are many woven within the fabric of this history. They also love their ghosts! Here is one of my favorites:
    It tells of a preacher at a temple, where every day appears a slender lady, her face and shoulders always covered. She makes rich contributions to the cash box, always holding her hand out to receive the charm that would ensure health and happiness in this world and the next. Each day, however, her hand is passed by. But her persistence and repentance for whatever was her offense never wavers. And so one day, the Shōnin places the charm in her hand.
    As he later sits in deep thought, he finally asks his attendant disciple to go to the hill behind the temple, where he will find a dying fox. The disciple does as bidden, though thinking his priest has lost his mind. But there, indeed, in the mouth of the fox is the charm. The priest explains, when his disciple returns that the beautiful woman was this fox, who has now won the reward of birth in human form in her next life.
    Terute has her own miraculous intervention when she is kidnapped and sold to a scoundrel named Manchō, who expects her to entertain men at his establishment. Absolutely refusing, he puts her to work doing what is humanly impossible. She prays to the Lady Merciful, who appears to her in a vision. Suddenly, help shows up whenever she needs it. Buckets of water become like feathers. Miles become a short walk. A touch of the ax splinters the logs. And Manchō is angered that he cannot have his way with Terute!
    And then there is the magic horse, Onikage, whom no one but Sukeshige can handle. And this is how they meet:
    After the fall of the House of Oguri, Sukeshige vows revenge with the assistance of his Valiants. They now travel in disguise, and very hungry, they stop at the inn of the brothers Kichiji and Kichirō. Little do they know that next door resides a young lady who recognizes her husband, though they have not seen each other for years. Eventually they meet and consummate the marriage contract. Terute now warns Sukeshige that Yokoyama, her uncle (and the murderer of her father) also stays here, and he has five sons, (of which the family was unaware!) who are just as evil as he. At this point, they are not aware that he murdered Terute's father, but they soon find out. Terute does know, however, that Yokoyama is in league with Isshiki. Terute is under the guardianship of Tamate, the mother of one of the Valiants, Ikeno Shōji.
    Unfortunately, two of Yokoyama's sons have their eye on Terute, and they both observe her tryst with her husband. Yokoyama is now Shōgen (Military Dictator—a top-ranking position in Japan 1185-1868), and soon he and everyone knows exactly who their samurai guests are. He challenges Sukeshige, and his first challenge is that he must tame a certain horse, Onikage, who is in the stables. The horse feeds upon human flesh, and as Sukeshige and Shōji near the stables, they smell the stench. They also see a man tied up to a tree, as fodder. He is nearly dead, but they recognize him. He is Dosuke, and is finally able to tell the truth about the murder of Atsumitsu. Then he dies.
    But as it turns out, Onikage is a pussycat in the hands of Sukeshige. The two were made for each other, and they perform impossible feats at the request of the Shōgen. Onikage and Sukeshige mount a ladder, as it is held up by Ikeno Shōji, and the great Onikage is also able to balance on the tiny Go-board!! As I said, there is humor and fantasy mixed with the history of this tale.
    This book is certainly not for everyone to read, but if you are one who enjoys challenging literature, here you will find extraordinary rewards! What a great story!! (Note: I'm not sure I actually enjoy challenging literature, but I seem to put myself through it frequently. HA!)
    Incidentally, this book is no longer available in paper from Dover, but they do still supply the eBook, which I would not buy because I never pay for eBooks. It will probably show up at Project Gutenberg at some point for free. Amazon still carries the book book.
    Below, we see Sukeshige riding Onikage as they mount the ladder! The Might of Ikeno Shōji, by Mr. Kaneko Sanji (Hōzui) of Yokohama)

The Might of Ikeno Shōji

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