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Prehistory: The ‘Battle’ Narrative in Early Modern Japanese Popular Culture

Prehistory: Samurai-culture/aesthetics in Kabuki and storybooks during the Edo period
© Keio university

When we think about the ‘origin’ of popular battle narratives in Japan, it is inevitable to find the establishment of the archetypal image of the ninja in the Japanese cultural imagination. Although the establishment would require a detailed explanation, here we shall briefly trace its history.

The Establishment of Bushido in the Edo Period

Before the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when the Tokugawa Shogunate collapsed, the Japanese public had enjoyed plenty of battle narratives through various media. During the Edo period (1603-1867), Japanese society became much more stable than before under the strict control of the Shogunate. Japan was now a peaceful country; no considerable war occurred after 1615, when TOKUGAWA Ieyasu, the first Shogun, decisively crushed his enemies. In such circumstances, warlords and samurais were no longer needed as fighters, but had to serve as rulers of the nation.

Interestingly enough, Bushido, or samurai aesthetics, started to flourish at this point. It was not a systematized, established ideology with a single origin, but rather a complex mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shintoism. Neither NITOBE Inazo’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan (1900) nor YAMAMOTO Jocho’s Hagakure (early 17C; misleadingly famous for its passage ‘Bushido is a way of dying’) can be said to cover all the aspects of Bushido. Basically speaking, however, Bushido emphasizes the importance of justice, loyalty, filial devotion, and bravery; and a samurai would die to protect these virtues, that is, to live the life of a samurai. This development might be equivalent to the modern idealization of western chivalry starting from the Renaissance.

Whether it was a real fact or not, Japanese popular imagination repeatedly depicted heroic and/or tragic deeds of great samurai heroes along these lines. On stage, a number of kabuki and noh plays took up the impressive battles narrated in Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike)(1), Taihei-ki (The Record of Great Peace)(2), and shocking political events such as Chushingura (The Tale of the Loyal Retainers)(3) as their topics. Later, in the Edo period, these stories came to be written down, with free additions, as novels for popular readers, generally called kusa-zoshi (‘popular fictions’) and yomi-hon (‘books for reading’). Those stories, whether on stage or on the page, often emphasized poetic justice, and therefore treated the theme of revenge, loyalty, and filial devotion as the backdrop to exciting battles.

In our context, the development of the kodan genre is perhaps more important. Kodan is storytelling with exaggerated accents on stage. It is thought to have originated in Taihei-ki reading, in which the narrator entertainingly explains the meaning and virtues of the Record(4). Kodan steadily expanded its repertoire, incorporating other historical narratives from different genres, and vice versa. Its popularity reached the climax at the end of the Edo period and the beginning of the Meiji period, when western-style movable type printing was duly introduced.

The Development of Kodan-bon and the Tatsukawa Bunko Series

As TSURUMI Shunsuke argues, ‘the development of the popular novel in post-Meiji Japan’ was strongly influenced by ‘the union of shorthand, introduced from the West and adapted by Tagusari Tsunenori in 1882 to the needs of the Japanese language, and the art of droll storytelling [rakugo] performed at small vaudeville theatres in the Edo period’(5). The first result of this union was the publication of a rakugo ghost story narrated by an extremely popular contemporary (oral) storyteller, SANYU-TEI Encho in 1884(6). With the emergence of these technical means, kodan, a traditionally and primarily oral performance, was transformed into written literary form and came to be called kodan-bon (‘kodan books’).

One of the most influential publishing houses of kodan-bon was Tatsukawa Bunmeido, which started the reputed Tatsukawa Bunko series in 1911 (7). Its main authors were TAMADA Gyokushusai (a kodan performer), his wife YAMADA Kei, and her sons by a previous marriage. What was unique about them was that they switched from transcribed stories to creating their own stories in the kodan vein. The series was marketed to a juvenile audience in small format and for a cheap price thus quickly becoming popular among teenage readers in Osaka area.

The Establishment of Ninja as a Literary Icon

The stories and characters created by the series captivated Japanese children’s imagination. Among the best known is SARUTOBI Sasuke, a great ninja boy wielding almost supernatural ninjutsu (ninja skills) to serve his lord SANADA Yukimura. As ADACHI Kenichi has pointed out(8), the Sasuke stories in the Tatsukawa Bunko series took a clue from the Chinese adventure novel Hsi-yu Chi (Journey to the West), and Sasuke is reminiscent of its protagonist, the supernatural monkey Sun Wu-K’ung, or Son Goku in Japanese pronunciation.

Tatsukawa Bunko roughly coincided with the dawn of Japanese film industry, and in this field ninjas who perform miraculous ninjutsu were also well received. MAKINO Shozo, a great director of the period, was good at trick photography and filmed a number of entertainment movies including those based on the Tatsukawa Bunko stories. In this way, these two emergent genres, popular fiction and film, collaborated to popularize the fictive image of the ninja in Japanese imagination.

© Keio university
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