Monday, April 03, 2006

Japanese Tales: Shirai Gonpachi

This is one of those “blog” entries, which took on a life of its own. Originally, I was just going to talk about a print I recently bid on, but after researching who Shirai Gonpachi was, and his story, I decided to share what I discovered. It is an interesting tale .One that will definitely lead to other “blog” entries.


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Title: Samurai In Snow
Artist: Kunisada Utagawa 1786-1865
Date: 1857
Publisher: Uoei
Size: 9.1 x 13.6 inches
Description: Kabuki actor in the role of Shirai Gonpachi


On Friday March 31st I placed a bid on this print. At the time I had no idea who Shirai Gonpachi was, but I bid on the print because I liked the composition of it, as well as those wonderful geta he is wearing.

Normally when I buy a print, or prepare to buy a print like in this case, I do some research on the subject matter. I like knowing something about the history of the image as well as the artist who created the piece. In this case I was very surprised by what I found. I never imagined Shirai Gonpachi was a robber/murderer.

While brigands, pirates, and Yakuza are common motifs in Japanese woodblock prints, I had never seen an outlaw so well dressed, without numerous tattoos, or carrying two swords.

Searching through the various books I have on Japanese art, legends, historical figures, and kabuki, as well as spending several hours doing Internet searches I was able to find Shirai Gonpachi’s story. Or more accurately stated, several of his stories.

Like many Japanese stories, the tale of Shirai Gonpachi is one of love, disparity, and the choices one makes to accomplish their objectives. Basically, it is a story of the declining moral values of a man, who goes from reputable samurai to murdering beast, all because of love.

While I’m not sure when these events are suppose to have taken place chances are it occurred during the Genroku Period (1688 –1704). This “guess” is based on the below quoted text which states that these events were already about 230 years old by the time this version of the story was written. The author of this English version, Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford lived between 1837-1916.


The Story of Shiirai Gonpachi

Shirai (or Hirai) Gonpachi was a native of Inshu (Tottori prefecture). According to the theatrical story of his life, the 16-year-old Gonpachi was famous for his good looks, bravery, and swordsmanship.

In his hometown, Gonpachi gets into a dispute with a fellow clansman, and ends up killing him.
“Now it happened that one day a dog belonging to him fought with another dog belonging to a fellow-clansman, and the two masters, being both passionate youths, disputing as to whose dog had had the best of the fight, quarreled and came to blows, and Gonpachi slew his adversary; and in consequence of this he was obliged to flee from his country, and make his escape to Edo.”
The Project Gutenberg eBook, Tales of Old Japan, by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford

Gonpachi flees to Edo, and while staying at a local inn he meets the 15-year-old beauty Komurasaki. Komursaki, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, is being held captive by a group of gangsters there. During the night she warns Gonpachi that the innkeeper (the leader of the gangsters) is plotting to kill him and steal his sword. Gonpachi attacks the gang, kills all of them, frees Komurasaki, and then returns her to her family.
“One night, weary and footsore, he entered what appeared to him to be a roadside inn, ordered some refreshment, and went to bed, little thinking of the danger that menaced him: for as luck would have it, this inn turned out to be the trysting-place of a gang of robbers, into whose clutches he had thus unwittingly fallen. To be sure, Gonpachi's purse was but scantily furnished, but his sword and dirk were worth some three hundred ounces of silver, and upon these the robbers (of whom there were ten) had cast envious eyes, and had determined to kill the owner for their sake; but he, all unsuspicious, slept on in fancied security.

In the middle of the night he was startled from his deep slumbers by some one stealthily opening the sliding door which led into his room, and rousing himself with an effort, he beheld a beautiful young girl, fifteen years of age, who, making signs to him not to stir, came up to his bedside, and said to him in a whisper— "Sir, the master of this house is the chief of a gang of robbers, who have been plotting to murder you this night for the sake of your clothes and your sword. As for me, I am the daughter of a rich merchant in Mikawa: last year the robbers came to our house, and carried off my father's treasure and myself. I pray you, sir, take me with you, and let us fly from this dreadful place."

She wept as she spoke, and Gonpachi was at first too much startled to answer; but being a youth of high courage and a cunning fencer to boot, he soon recovered his presence of mind, and determined to kill the robbers, and to deliver the girl out of their hands. So he replied—"Since you say so, I will kill these thieves, and rescue you this very night; only do you, when I begin the fight, run outside the house, that you may be out of harm's way, and remain in hiding until I join you."”
The Project Gutenberg eBook, Tales of Old Japan, by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford

Naturally, Gonpachi and Komuraski are in love by now. However Gonpachi turns down the life of a merchant, and leaves her seeking employment in Edo.
“The young man, however, in spite of the kindness of the old merchant, who wished to adopt him as his son, and tried hard to persuade him to consent to this, was fretting to go to Edo and take service as an officer in the household of some noble lord; so he resisted the entreaties of the father and the soft speeches of the daughter, and made ready to start on his journey; and the old merchant, seeing that he would not be turned from his purpose, gave him a parting gift of two hundred ounces of silver, and sorrowfully bade him farewell.”
The Project Gutenberg eBook, Tales of Old Japan, by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford

Later in the story, Gonpachi visits the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters after hearing about a beautiful courtesan. When he arrives at the Miuraya brothel, he discovers the courtesan is Komurasaki who is now selling herself in order to support her destitute parents.
“About this time men began to speak loud in praise of the charms of Komurasaki, or "Little Purple," a young girl who had recently come to the Yoshiwara, and who in beauty and accomplishments outshone all her rivals. Gompachi, like the rest of the world, heard so much of her fame that he determined to go to the house where she dwelt, at the sign of "The Three Sea-coasts," and judge for himself whether she deserved all that men said of her.”
The Project Gutenberg eBook, Tales of Old Japan, by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford

Lacking the funds to liberate Komurasaki from a life of prostitution, Gonpachi turns to a life of debauchery, supporting his lifestyle by robbery and murder.
“When it became time for them to separate, he embraced her tenderly and returned to Chobei's house; but he could not banish Komurasaki from his mind, and all day long he thought of her alone; and so it came about that he went daily to the Yoshiwara to see her, and if any accident detained him, she, missing the accustomed visit, would become anxious and write to him to inquire the cause of his absence. At last, pursuing this course of life, his stock of money ran short, and as, being an rônin and without any fixed employment, he had no means of renewing his supplies, he was ashamed of showing himself penniless at "The Three Sea-coasts." Then it was that a wicked spirit arose within him, and he went out and murdered a man, and having robbed him of his money carried it to the Yoshiwara.

From bad to worse is an easy step, and the tiger that has once tasted blood is dangerous. Blinded and infatuated by his excessive love, Gonpachi kept on slaying and robbing, so that, while his outer man was fair to look upon, the heart within him was that of a hideous devil.”
The Project Gutenberg eBook, Tales of Old Japan, by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford

Gonpachi is eventually caught and executed. His devoted lover, Komuraski, then kills herself at his grave located at the gate of Meguro Fudo Temple.

The End.


Historically, it is reputed that Gonpachi killed 130 people before he was executed by haritsuke (impalement with spears while tied to a crucifix) in 1679.

Clealry this story is a tragedy, and in its day, people who were sympathetic to Gonpachi and Komurasake’s tale were so moved that they built a hiyokuzuka ("lovers' tomb") in their memory. To further commemorate their story temple priests carved a picture of the Hiyoku, (a legendary lovebird that exists only when it has found its mate), on the tomb.

How much of this story is fact, and how much is fiction is anyone’s guess. Clearly there are many questions that challenge its historical validity. However, this tale has inspired numerous theatrical productions and artwork.

In my search for more information on this story I have come across many different pieces of artwork, many of which further detail the story of Gonpachi.

Some of the ones I thought were interesting and tell more of the story are shown below.


Artist: Shunbaisai Hokuei
Date: 1835
Publisher: Tenki (Tenmaya Kihei)
Size: 37.4 x 25.6 cm
Description: Arashi Rikan II as Shirai Gonpachi in “Hiyokumon sato no nishiki-e

In this print Gonpachi is depicted observing a samurai and his servant at night. His stealthy posture is evident, and one has to wonder what his intentions are towards these men. Clearly, the use of colors in this print suggests he is in the shadows, most likely waiting for his opportunity to attack.




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Artist: Kitagawa Toyohide
Date: Oct. 1841
Publisher: Honsei (Honya Seishichi)
Size:
Description: Onoe Kikugoro III as Shirai Gonpachi in “Ume no hatsuharu gojusantsugi,” at the Kado Theater, Osaka

The play “Ume no hatsuharu gojusantsugi” is a tale highlighting unusual happenings along the Tokaido Road.

In this print the actor Kikugoro, in the role of Gonpachi, is in the middle of a choreograph fight scene (tachimwari), subduing one opponent and throwing another opponent off a roof. Clearly the subjects being subdued are doshin (police officers).



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Title: Komurasaki and Gonpachi
Artist: Suzuki Harunobu, 1724–1770
Publisher:
Date: Edo period 1770
Size: 15 ¼ x 10 3/8 inches
Description: The two lovers, Shirai Gonpachi and Komurasaki

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
William S. and John T. Spaulding Collection



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Title: Two Kabuki Actors in Snow
Artist: Kunimasu Utagawa 1830-1852
Date: 1840
Publisher:
Size: 7.5 x 10.2 inches
Description: Kabuki actor, Ichikawa Morinosuke, holding umbrella, is in the role of Shirai Gonpachi

I couldn’t find the story behind this particular print, but it is either depicting a robbery in progress, or an earlier event where he is attacked by brigands.
(Brigands other that the ones at the inn.)
However, the subject on the ground does not appear to be depicted as a member of criminal society.



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Artist: Kuniyoshi Utagawa 1797 – 1861
Date: 1843 - 1845
Publisher: Iseya Ichibei
Size: 9.6 x 14.4 inches
Description: “Genji Kumo Ukiyo-e Awase" (Pictures of today compared with the chapters of the Tale of Genji) Chapter Sekiya. Shirai Gonpachi

The image shows the character Shirai Gompachi, from the Kabuki play Kakene Nashi Edokko Ryôri, tying his girdle by a netted palanquin under the rain, his foot on the neck of a prostrate bearer.

This scene is most likely the point in the story where Gonpachi is attacked by brigands, just before meeting the famous Banzui Chobei.



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Title: Two Rivals
Artist: Yoshitaki Utagawa 1841 – 1899
Date: 1860’s
Publisher:
Size: 14.4 x 9.8 inches
Description: Kabuki actors, Onoe Tamizo (left) is in the role of Banzui Chobei and Ichikawa Ichizo is Shirai Gonpachi in the play, "Kuruwa Kayoi".


This is an important print in the annals of this story because it depicts two aspects of Gonpachi’s life.

The first aspect is Gonpachi before he becomes a criminal. He is being attacked by brigands, and during the conflict is rescued by Banzui Chobei the chief of the local Otokodate (a name given to the members of young men who banded together to patrol and protect townspeople from lawless low-ranking samurai.)
“But his dangers were not yet over; for late one night, arriving at a place called Suzugamori, in the neighborhood of Edo, he fell in with six highwaymen, who attacked him, thinking to make short work of killing and robbing him. Nothing daunted, he drew his sword, and dispatched two out of the six; but, being weary and worn out with his long journey, he was sorely pressed, and the struggle was going hard with him, when a wards-man, who happened to pass that way riding in a chair, seeing the affray, jumped down from his chair and drawing his dirk came to the rescue, and between them they put the robbers to flight.

Now it turned out that this kind tradesman, who had so happily come to the assistance of Gonpachi, was no other than Chôbei of Bandzuin, the chief of the Otokodaté, or Friendly Society of the wardsmen of Edo —a man famous in the annals of the city, whose life, exploits, and adventures are recited to this day, and form the subject of another tale.”

The Project Gutenberg eBook, Tales of Old Japan, by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford

The second aspect is his friendship with Banzui Chobei, which due to Chobei’s hospitality will ultimately cause his decline into a life of idleness and debauchery.

“Gonpachi accepted the offer of his new but trusty friend with thanks; so Chôbei led him to his house, where he lodged him and hospitably entertained him for some months. And now Gonpachi, being idle and having nothing to care for, fell into bad ways, and began to lead a dissolute life, thinking of nothing but gratifying his whims and passions; he took to frequenting the Yoshiwara, the quarter of the town which is set aside for tea-houses and other haunts of wild young men, where his handsome face and figure attracted attention, and soon made him a great favorite with all the beauties of the neighborhood.”
The Project Gutenberg eBook, Tales of Old Japan, by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford

Of course this part of the story all takes place before Gonpachi discovers his love is now a prostitute, and turns to a life of crime.
I’m not certain, but it sounds as if Chobei was clearly aware of Gonpachi’s criminal activity. Despite this knowledge, and the fact that Chobei is considered a “crime fighter,” he looks the other way; until Gonpachi’s crimes become so notorious that he has no other choice but to kick Gonpachi out of his home.
“From bad to worse is an easy step, and the tiger that has once tasted blood is dangerous. Blinded and infatuated by his excessive love, Gompachi kept on slaying and robbing, so that, while his outer man was fair to look upon, the heart within him was that of a hideous devil. At last his friend Chôbei could no longer endure the sight of him, and turned him out of his house…”
The Project Gutenberg eBook, Tales of Old Japan, by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford

While Chobei’s decision to harbor Gonpaci may be questionable, what is certain is that Gonpachi is protected from the authorities due to Chobei’s status while he is a guest at his residence. Clearly, it is not until he is kicked out of Chobei’s home that the authorities take action and arrest Gonpachi.

If Chobei is actually involved in Gonpachi’s arrest is unclear, but their friendship most likely kept him form taking an active role.


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Title: Eimei Nijuhasshuku (Twenty-eight plebeian verses about the constellations of glorious figures)
Artist: Ikkaisai Yoshitoshi
Date: 1866
Publisher: Kinseido
Size:
Description:

I’m not sure what scene in the story this print depicts. It could either be the fight at the inn, or Gonpahi’s fight with the brigands.

This print is an example of chimidorore (blood stained picture) or muzane (atrocious pictures).


So far this is all the info I have on this story. I hope to learn more, and if any reader can help me I would enjoy hearing from them.

The most interesting thing about researching this print was all the other information I found in the process. Information I will definitely share in future “blogs.”

In closing I have one more favor to ask readers; if anyone knows where I may find a copy (original copy) of the prints by Kitagawa Toyohide, Kunimasu Utagawa, or Eimei Nijuhasshuku please let me know. I would like to add them to my collection.

For the complete quoted text of this story, as well as other Japanese tales go to:


Other sources:
“18th Century Japan: Culture and Society” by C. Andrew
“Yoshiwara” by Cecilia Segawa Seigle
“Kabuki Plays on Stage” edited by James R Brandon, Samuel L Leiter
“Seas and Lands” by Edwin Arnold
“Japanese Plays and Playfellows” by Osman Edwards

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