Of The Lord Of Musashi
and Arrowroot. trans
Anthony H. Chambers.
In 1948, after completing his great novel “The Makioka Sisters”, Tanizaki wrote that of his works he liked “Some Prefer Nettles” and “Arrowroot” best. The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, he described as another favourite and often spoke of a sequel (of which an outline was found after his death). Arrowroot and The Secret history of… are from the middle of this writer’s amazing career. By the time he wrote Arrowroot, all his previous work, the novels, stories, plays and essays had been collated into a volume and published as his “Complete Works” 20 years of work and he’d only just got started, he would go on entertaining, shocking and perplexing his audience for another 35, along the way he received The Imperial Award for Cultural Merit and achieved the distinction of being the first Japanese Writer to be elected (Honorary) to membership in The American Academy &amp; Institute of Arts and Letters.
The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, is set in the 16 century, opening with the main protagonist, a royal hostage, in a siege stricken castle, there as a peace token (a common practice worldwide around that period), the lord is a 12 year old child and finds all the action taking place around him very exciting, in fact he begs his attendant, some lower ranked Samurai, to allow him to join the fray, but is refused. A few days later, whilst listening in to the conversation of a group of female hostages, he learns about Head dressing and one of the elderly female hostages offers him the chance to see it in action. She takes him secretly to the room where the practice of Dressing Heads takes place and she explains the custom of cutting off the head of a ranked Samurai to be brought back as a trophy to be presented to your lord, obviously a bloodied head would be considered poor show, so the heads are cleaned by the women then made to appear as alive as possible.
This sight, the women dressing the heads, has a bizarre effect on the 12 year old boy, he is entranced by the vision before him and starts to feel agitated as he becomes aroused by this experience, becomes excited by these feelings new to to him. After a while he notices a nose- less head and learns that if a warrior doesn’t have time to remove a head, he will slice off the nose so he can go back later and claim his trophy, this combined with the girl dressing it stirs an even greater level of feeling in his loins
“The girl carefully ran her comb through the nose less head’s lustrous black hair and retied the topnot; then as she always she gazed at the centre of the face, where the nose should have been and smiled. As usual the boy was enchanted by her expression, but the surge of emotion he experienced at that moment was far stronger than any he had felt before.”
Without giving too much away, this through a series of bizarre tales and adventures, develops into a full blown sexual fetish, which follows him and comes to dominate his life and his view of it, regardless of his ability as a warrior, what he becomes is as a servant to his warped appetites, all he does is in homage to that desire.
This was one strange and yet strangely enjoyable tale, Tanizaki’s take on the idea of Samurai legends & their histories, is as though through a fairground mirror, it twists and contorts the classic traditions and the ideals of nobility.The tale bowls you along with the narrator more an old gossip in some surreal drama than a historian of worth. But the end result is a sly clever tale that for all its deviant nature is wonderful.
Arrowroot, starts with the narrator explaining that it’s been twenty years since he travelled to the interior of Yoshino in Yamato and that his reason in doing so was research for a historic novel set around the heavenly king, who was heir to the southern court and around whom numerous legends have accumulated. He then goes on to discuss a catalogue of references, histories etc. such as, An Imperial progress to the southern hills, Records of the south, The Blossom Cloud chronicles, plus several others. Everything he discusses is related through these references, in fact to take it further his whole world is seen through this medium. As we follow the narrator we learn that he was orphaned at an early age being raised by relatives and when he checked his past he discovered his mother was sold to a tea house. There is a lot more that goes on in this tale, but it’s all told through the lens of the narrators learning and although beautifully told I found myself reading it as though listening to a lovely piece of music and although it didn’t have the immediacy of The secret History of the Lord of Musashi, I was entranced by the writing if not so much the content. In writing this I know of at least one individual who will probably disagree with me & who has himself written a far better post on this tale which I shall add a link to… The Reading Life, This link will also give you access to his great review on the first story as well.
Junichiro Tanizaki (Timeline)