“He was dressed in black silk kimono but wore no skirts. A thick sash of hakata silk girded the waist and the ‘colt rampant,’ his family badge, was seen white on his kimono. Both the sword and the short-sword were encased in sheaths lobster-back in design, lacquered black worked over with vermillion in checkers. He wore no coat.”
—Ryunosuke’s introduction, Dai-bosatsu Tōge, Book I
§.00 Dai-bosatsu Tōge (Great Bodhisattva Pass), Book I, by Kaizan Nakazato (and translated by C. S. Bavier), is the first installment of a 41 part novel series and follows the lives of numerous inhabitants of Japan during the time of shogunate rule. The central character of the tale is the enigmatic Ryunosuke Tsukue, a icy kendo master who wields the fearsome fencing technique mumyo otonashi no kamae (form without sound or light) and kills without qualm. When Tsukue murders a old pilgrim at the Great Bodhisattva Pass, he sets off a chain of events which causes the lives of numerous individuals to become inextricably intertwined in the pursuit of revenge and redemption. Those caught in the web of Ryunosuke’s violence include the noble thief, Shichibei; his young ward, Matsu, whose pilgrim grandfather was slain by Ryunosuke; the troubled Hama, whose noble character is corrupted by her well-meaning designs; the half-witted but stupendously strong mill-keeper Yohachi, servant of Tsukue; the Band of New Levies, or Shinchogumi, a politically active fraternity of freelancing samurai who “counteract poison with poison;” the pathetic, yet gentle swordsman Bunnojo; and his vengeful brother Hyoma, who studies under the stony Toranosuke Shimada, master of the Yoda Jikishinkage school, and the only character who is intimated to be superior in sword-skill to Ryunosuke.
§.01 What is remarkable about the book is that any of the aforementioned characters could have been the lead and have detracted little, if at all. Indeed, each is worthy of their own novel (in my opinion, especially the mischevious, yet surprisingly admirable Shichibei). Though such a change-up is superfluous, as each principal character is given ample and near-equivalent attention. Even the tertiary characters are well-fleshed out.
§.02 As regards the style of the novel much could be said, however, for the sake of brevity, I’ll confine my commentary to the aspects which most impressed themselves upon me. Firstly, the creation of tension, which is skillfully realized by a rather unusual technique which can be aptly described as the ‘forthcoming cliff-hanger.’ The way the technique is deployed is usually thus: A character is imperiled through a imminently threatening situation which is described in detail until the action which will decide whether the character in question lives or dies occurs, whereupon the focus shifts entirely away from the imperiled character (often to another character) for several paragraphs; only later is the reader then told what became of them, in a sudden reveal. There is also a strong use of curt, comparative descriptions (“His men leaped forward like so many locusts” p. 126; “his sword falling after him like a leaf” p. 127).
§.03 That being said, there are places where words are misspelled (which I would induce is a consequence of the Japanese-to-English translation), but never do these minor, infrequent inconsistencies render a passage wholly unreadable (though, occasionally, one may need to do a double-take).
§.04 Virtue, and the unique perils which befall those who forsake it, is central among the themes. Often, success is itself failure, as when Shichibei is found to be a thief and is challenged by his master to thieve from him, which he does, to his master’s astonishment. This cheeky victory, however, is shortlived, as Shichibei is promptly thrown from the house for his insolence.
Another example of victory-as-failure can be seen in Ryunosuke’s bout with Bunnojo. Bunnojo, full with the knowledge that Ryunosuke ravished his woman, Hama, attempts a killing blow in the practice match, a blow which is deftly countered by Ryunosuke in self-defense, who then strikes Bunnojo upon the skull, killing him. This makes both Hama and Ryunosuke social outcasts (or in Hama’s words “creatures that must remain in the shadow” p. 86). The latter also becomes the target of Bunnojo’s fencing school, who (vainly) seek his destruction.
The theme re-emerges again towards the end when Shimada laments his victory over the New Levies, with whom he had no quarrel, as the men who’d waylaid him had mistaken him for another man whose death they sought and so found their own. Shimada then chastises Hijikata, leader of the New Levies, for causing him to slay so many able swordsmen in self defense, which he considers a stupid waste. Hijikata is so ashamed, firstly for mistaking Shimada for their target, and secondly for causing the deaths of his men, that he begs for death (“I have erred and deserved death” p. 137). Shimada, however, refuses to take the man’s life and departs, leaving Hijikata to attempt suicide, which is stopped by, of all people, Ryunosuke (the only kindness he exhibits in the entire novel), a reversal of his line to Hama when her guilt and his lack of empathy drives her to suicidal madness (“Please yourself, its your life, not mine” p. 91).
This suggests that, though cruel and bloodthirsty in his pursuit of mastery, Ryunosuke is not without potentiality for great virtue, as Geoffery O’Brien remarked in his article for The Criterion Collection, The Sword Of Doom: Calligraphy In Blood, “Ryunosuke is at once hero and villain, demon and potential bodhisattva¹.”
- Geoffrey O’Brien. (2015) The Sword Of Doom: Calligraphy In Blood. The Criterion Collection.
- Kaizan Nakazato; translated by C. S. Bavier. (1929) Dai-bosatsu Tōge (Great Bodhisattva Pass), Book I.
- Patricia Bjaaland Welch. (2009) Kshitigarbha: A Popular Early Bodhisattva. Passage Magazine (Singapore).
¹A bodhisattva is a enlightened one that forgoes nirvana to aid living beings.