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This article is about important Japanese figure; for the character in Ōkami, see Benkei.

SMBenkei

Benkei by Kikuchi Yosai.

Saitō Musashibō Benkei (「西塔武蔵坊弁慶」?), popularly called Benkei, was a Japanese warrior monk (sōhei) who served Minamoto no Yoshitsune. He is commonly depicted as a man of great strength and loyalty, and a popular subject of Japanese folklore. His life has been embellished and distorted by kabuki and Noh drama, so that truth cannot be distinguished from legend.

Biography

Stories about Benkei's birth vary considerably. One tells how his father was the head of a temple shrine who had raped his mother, the daughter of a blacksmith. Another sees him as the offspring of a temple god. Many give him the attributes of a demon, a monster child with wild hair and long teeth. In his youth Benkei may have been called Oniwaka (「鬼若」?; demon/ogre child), and there are many famous Ukiyo-e works themed on 'Oniwakamaru' and his adventures.

He joined the cloister at an early age and travelled widely among the monasteries of Japan. During this period, the Buddhist monasteries of Japan were important centres of administration and culture, but also military powers in their own right. Like many other monks, Benkei was probably trained in the use of the naginata. At the age of seventeen, he was said to have been over two metres (6.6 feet) tall. At this point, he left the Buddhist monastery and became a yamabushi, a member of a sect of mountain monks who were recognisable by their black caps. Japanese prints often show Benkei wearing this cap.

Benkei is said to have posted himself at Gōjō Bridge in Kyoto, where he disarmed every passing swordsman, eventually collecting 999 swords. On his 1000th duel, Benkei was defeated by Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a son of the warlord Minamoto no Yoshitomo. Henceforth, he became a retainer of Yoshitsune and fought with him in the Genpei War against the Taira clan.[1] Yoshitsune is credited with most of the Minamoto clan's successes against the Taira, especially the final naval battle of Dannoura. After their ultimate triumph, however, Yoshitsune's elder brother Minamoto no Yoritomo turned against him.

During the two year ordeal that followed, Benkei accompanied Yoshitsune as an outlaw. In the end, they were encircled in the castle of Koromogawa no tate. As Yoshitsune retired to the inner keep of the castle to commit ritual suicide (seppuku) on his own, Benkei fought on at the bridge in front of the main gate to protect Yoshitsune. It is said that the soldiers were afraid to traverse the bridge to confront him, and all that did met swift death at the hands of the gigantic man. Long after the battle should have been over, the soldiers noticed that the arrow-riddled, wound-covered Benkei was standing still. When the soldiers dared to cross the bridge and look more closely, the giant fell to the ground, having died in a standing position. This is known as the "Standing Death of Benkei" (「弁慶の立往生」?; Benkei no Tachi Ōjō).

It is Benkei's loyalty and honour which makes him most attractive in Japanese folklore. One kabuki play places Benkei in a moral dilemma, caught between lying and protecting his lord in order to cross a bridge. The critical moment of the drama is its climax, where the monk realises his situation and vows to do what he must. In another play, Benkei even slays his own child to save the daughter of a lord. In the kabuki play Kanjinchō, filmed by Akira Kurosawa as The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, Benkei must beat his own master (disguised as a porter) in order to avoid breaking his disguise.

Ōkami

In Ōkami, Benkei is first seen on a bridge (which is also called the Gōjō Bridge) wear his trademark black cap, fishing for his 1000th sword. In this case, it was a legendary fish known as the "Living Sword" (a fish which has a sword-like appearance, named the Cutlass Fish). He prevents Amaterasu from crossing the bridge until he catches the fish. In order to pass him, Amaterasu must buy the fishing rod called Blinding Snow (which he couldn't afford himself, for 5000 Yen) from the Tool Merchant for him. After giving him the rod, Amaterasu must use her Celestial Brush to help Benkei catch the fish. After he catches the legendary fish (with Amaterasu's help), he claims to realize how foolish his obsession with swords is and decides fishing is a much worthier pursuit (apparently having given up his passion for swordfighting in favor of his newfound love of fishing). He can later be found fishing in the Aristocratic Quarter of Sei'an City.

References

  1. Kitagawa, Hiroshi et al. (1975). The Tale of the Heike, pp. 535, 540, 654, 656, 669.

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