|KEY WORD : art history / paintings
|Musashibou Benkei 武蔵坊弁慶, a semi-legendary warrior-monk of the 12c, who was associated with Minamoto no *Yoshitsune 源義経 (1159-89) and a favorite subject in drama and art. A historical figure called Benkei appears briefly and insignificantly in AZUMAKAGAMI 吾妻鏡 (The Mirror of The East), and other histories, but the warrior-priest who serves Yoshitsune in numerous stories--described as prodigiously strong, unswervingly brave, irrepressibly cunning, and invariably good-natured--is certainly a product of the imagination. Benkei plays major roles in GIKEIKI 義経記 (The Annals of Yoshitsune), *otogi zoushi 御伽草子, BENKEI MONOGATARI 弁慶物語 (The Tales of Benkei), and in several *nou 能, kouwakamai 幸若舞, and *kabuki 歌舞伎 dramas. Benkei's first meeting with Yoshitsune is related in an episode known as "Benkei at the Bridge" Hashi Benkei 橋弁慶. The details of the incident vary depending on the version (GIKEIKI 3: McCullough, pp. 121-27; BENKEI MONOGATARI, otogi zoushi and nou HASHI BENKEI). In one version, Benkei--determined to collect one-thousand swords--way-lays passers-by until he attacks and is defeated by the young Yoshitsune. In the other version, it is the effeminate Yoshitsune, wearing a woman's cloak, who murders Taira 平 warriors at the Gojou 五条 Bridge in order to collect one-thousand swords. In both cases, after a long duel, Yoshitsune defeats Benkei and makes the ruffian his servant. The next major episode concerning Benkei and Yoshitsune is "Benkei in the Boat" Funa Benkei 船弁慶, based on an incident in GIKEIKI 4 (McCullough, pp. 153-65) and developed into the nou FUNA BENKEI , as well as the kouwakamai SHIKOKUOCHI 四国落 and OISAGASHI. When Yoshitsune and his men, fleeing the capital, set out for western Japan from Daimotsu no ura 大物浦 (see *Senbonzakura 千本桜), the vengeful ghosts of the Taira warriors slain in the Genpei 源平 war (see * heike-e 平家絵) threaten Yoshitsune and his ships. Benkei, either through prayers or arms (depending on the version), subdues the Taira spirits. Perhaps Benkei's most famous episode occurs during Yoshitsune's escape to Oushuu 奥州 (present-day Touhoku 東北 region), when Benkei dupes the guards at the Ataka 安宅 Barrier into letting pass the small band of fugitives disguised as priests. The incident, found in incipient form in GIKEIKI 7 (McCullough, pp. 251-55), was developed into the nou ATAKA, kouwakamai TOGASHI 富樫 and OISAGASHI, and achieved mass popularity in the kabuki *KANJINCHOU 勧進帳. In addition to the episodes concerning his service to Yoshitsune, a variety of legends fill in the early years of Benkei's life. The son of a priest of Kumano 熊野, he was called Oniwakamaru 鬼若丸 as a youth. Abnormally large and strong, he is described as having shoulder-length hair and a complexion supposedly scarred by smallpox. Best known of the legends of Benkei's childhood is his prodigious struggle with a giant carp under a waterfall. Eventually Benkei entered the western compound of the temple on Mt. Hiei 比叡. From Benkei's days as a priest comes the episode of his stealing the bell of the rival temple Miidera 三井寺 and carrying it up the steep slopes of Mt. Hiei. According to one version, the bell would not ring, so Benkei threw it down the mountain and it rolled back to Miidera. In another telling, the abbot of Mt. Hiei ordered Benkei to carry it back to Miidera. Also famous is his violent attack on priests at Mt. Shosha 書写 in which Benkei avenges an insult by throwing one monk onto the roof of the Lecture hall *koudou 講堂, and then burning the entire compound (GIKEIKI 3, McCullough, pp. 115-21), made into the act SHOSHAZAN 書写山 from the kabuki KIICHI HOUGEN SANRYAKU NO MAKI 鬼一法眼三略巻. As an adult, Benkei is usually depicted as a large, powerful itinerant monk yamabushi 山伏, wearing black robes, a small cap on his shaved head, and a conch shell around his neck. Typically his expression is fierce and his eyes bloodshot. Benkei is frequently shown in popular art of the Edo period, with depictions ranging from *ootsu-e 大津絵 (primarily, illustration of the Miidera incident) to sword guards tsuba 鍔. He also appears frequently in *ukiyo-e 浮世絵 including warrior prints *musha-e 武者絵; actor prints *yakusha-e 役者絵; and *mitate-e 見立絵, most notably in works by Utagawa Kuniyoshi 歌川国芳 (1797-1861).
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