Vengeance at Ganryujima; Comparing Two Works by two Masters, Sadahide and Kuniyoshi
Many years ago, during winter and summer breaks, I worked in a bookstore in Ossining, New York. That bookstore, Books ’N’ Things, had a large display of popular books across from the counter. In the 80’s, one of the books that was displayed for a considerable time was The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi published by the Overlook Press. This book, described by the publisher as “the classic guide to strategy[,]’ was written by a Japanese master swordsman. It was a surprising best seller in the 70’s and 80’s among businessmen anxious to discover reasons for Japanese economic success. The cover of the Overlook edition uses a portion of a woodblock print of Miyamoto Musashi wielding two bokken. (A bokken is a wooden sword primarily used for practice.) Gazing at that cover illustration may well have been my first exposure to my favorite artist: Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
Recently, The Art of Japan added two prints depicting Miyamoto Musashi to its inventory. These prints, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Utagawa Sadahide, show a duel between Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro A comparison of these prints illustrates some differences between the two artists as well as some of the variations in the descriptions of that duel.
The duel between Miyamoto and Sasaki is recorded as taking place in 1612. The duel has been the subject of numerous woodblock prints, novels and even movies over the centuries. Over time, the story of the actual fight changed from an historical account, to fiction and legend which have obscured, but embellished the actual details of the event.
The reasons given for the duel in historical and fictional sources vary. Some accounts indicate that the duel was held to establish who was the better swordsman; others indicate that Musashi sought the duel to avenge the death of his father at Kojiro’s hands. Both Musashi and Kojiro were renowned swordsmen. Miyamoto was a master of a fighting style using two swords, while Sasaki’s weapon of choice was a nodachi— a sword with a longer blade than those typically carried.
The duel took place on Ganryū-jima, a small island located off the shores of what was Bizen Province between Honshū and Kyūshū. The island was, and still is, accessible only by boat. The duel had been set at that location and the combatants were directed by a local lord to arrive there at a certain date and time.
On the day of the duel, as some authors have it, Musashi arranged to arrive several hours late. This was a strategic move to enrage Kojiro and thus calculated to cause Kojiro to strike hastily and carelessly. In addition, according to some accounts, Musashi crafted two long wooden swords out of a boat oar on his way to the duel. It is said that one of these swords was longer than the nodachi used by Kojiro. This longer bokken, even though made from the wooden oar, would allow Musashi to disorient Kojiro and keep his distance from the edge of Kojiro’s nodachi.
The duel was over quickly. Kojiro attempted to strike and narrowly missed. Musashi struck Kojiro several times with the oar. Kojiro died from the brutal blows administered by Musashi’s broken oar.
The Kuniyoshi and Sadahide prints currently on display at The Art of Japan show the conclusion of the duel at Ganryū-jima: the fatal blow to the head. These prints, according to The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, share the same title: Vengeance at Ganryûjima (Ganryûjima katakiuchi no zu; 岸柳島報讐之図). Kuniyoshi’s print was published in 1856 and Sadahide’s in 1865. The prints’ titles establish that the motivation for the duel is revenge for the murder of Musashi’s father. Both prints show Musashi fighting with wooden swords. Sadahide’s print clearly shows that the swords have been fashioned from a single oar. Both images also establish that Kojiro almost cut Musashi with his nodachi. Sadahide and Kuniyoshi illustrate this near miss by placing a small scrap of fabric from Musashi’s clothing on Kojiro’s blade.
Interestingly, the prints show the background of the duel very differently.
Kuniyoshi’s print shows an impromptu audience watching the duel. The crowd, composed of unarmed spectators, watch with expressions of alarm and excitement. The spectators are an important element of the design; they occupy the entire right panel of the triptych and extend across all three panels. The duel itself is confined to two panels. The spectators watch from the sea and the shore. Kuniyoshi is focusing on how the duel plays to the crowd, the common people. Kuniyoshi draws the duel as a dramatic spectacle and legend.
Sadahide, on the other hand, uses the background of his print to draw a detailed bird’s eye view of the landscape surrounding Ganryū-jima. The shore across from the duel is crowded with warehouses, castles and other geographic features; many of them labelled. Numerous ships are drawn adjacent to the illustrated ports. The only spectators to the duel are two boatmen waiting in their boat to carry Musashi away if he survives. No one has come to the island just to watch the duel. The details of the duel are drawn crisply and the design has been engraved and printed beautifully. The attention to engraving enhances Sadahide’s panoramic view of the nearby shore. The geographic detail in the background is as interesting as the fight in the foreground. The print demands a close reading, with a magnifying glass.
Comparing these prints and other prints of the same duel is a worthy exercise. Look for a print by Utagawa Yoshitora where Musashi fights the duel with steel blades and another by Utagawa Sadafusa where a woman armed with a sword attacks Kojiro while Musashi looks on! Close study of the various depictions of this duel can teach you a lot about the differences between print artists and the differences in the way the Musashi legend is told over time.
Kuniyoshi's Version of the duel with the onlookers in the boats and along the shore at the right. KUniyoshi has positioned Musahi leaping from the right as he delivers the fatal blow.
In Sadahide's version, Musahi leaps in from the left; he has already delivered a brutal blow to Kojiro's head. Note the bit of Musahi's apron on Kojiro's sword.