A Story of Swords, Rope, and Romance

As a researcher of the classical Japanese martial arts, I tend to get lost into massive libraries that house antique documentation of everything from the martial arts and warrior-ship, to that of flower arrangement, tea ceremony, and many other things.

“Meiwa Masamune Katana no Chinsetsu” (銘者正宗刀珎説) was written by Ikku Jippensha (1765-1831)

I always find it interesting to take notice of depictions of rope restraint in classical Japanese literature. and this evening while looking for another document (on matters of yinyang and the five elements in the late 18th century, which I didn’t find…), I stumbled upon an interesting chronicle narrating storied of he famous Japanese sword smith, Gorō Nyūdō Masamune (1264–1343). He was basically an almost mythical figure, known for his unparalleled craftsmanship in the hand production of swords and daggers. Though my findings regarding this chronicle as a while is better suited for my other website, there were two lovely illustrations involving rope restraint.

This publication, “Meiwa Masamune Katana no Chinsetsu” (銘者正宗刀珎説) was written by Ikku Jippensha (1765-1831), and depicts some fabulous illustrations regarding sword smithing and metal work, sword combat, and even two cases of rope restraint. This is currently located at the Waseda Uniersity in Shinjuku, Japan.

A depiction of a samurai to be put to death over the theft ofone of the famous Masamune swords.

This first illustration is a common depiction in this form of literature, where one man is at sword point while being bound in rope. I won’t pretend to know the narrative here as this form of literature is rather above my head in several ways in regards to translation, but knowing that this book is about Masamune swords, and based on some of the illustrations leading up to this (the bound man is seen taking an unmounted blade from a carrying case; shiro-saya 白鞘), I deduce that he has been captured for trying to steal a Masamune sword, and was of course caught, and would be put to death.

However, later he is depicted in a servants position (sitting on his knees to the left of the individual) to a swordsmith, who based on his stature, could be presumed to be Masamune himself.

And closer to the end of the book, he is depicted as being in an intense sword fight where a bandit is making off with a woman. A page later, he is rescuing the woman who is tied to a tree with rope; the bandit is on the other side of the tree, looking away.

A woman tied to a tree and about to be rescued from her captor by a warrior with a Masamune sword. 

It is interesting to note that in these depictions of samurai being bound in rope, it is common to see the same tie; involving just the wrists and biceps bound, while women often have the rope going right around the upper torso (above the breasts). Though the use of rope serves both as a literary tool (inferring a sense of shame or disgrace), and an expression of lifestyle (in that Japan is a very rope-centric culture), it is interesting to note that the sexes are separated by the forms that rope is depicted as being used on them.

Considering the amount of ties presented in the encyclopedic Zukai Hojojutsu by Fujita Seiko (providing hundreds of illustrations of body ties), it is a little bit of a surprise to note that comparatively few would fit the image of what is shown in these chronicles, where from the front, only the rope around the biceps, and sometimes neck, can be seen. Yet in these chronicles, it is almost exclusively this tie that is seen on men. It is stylized, yet simple.

On the other hand, women are usually depicted as having just a length or two wrapped around their upper chest. This style, I think, would be more expected considering that one cannot expect the illustrator to be versed in either shibari or hojojutsu.

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