The Curse of the Muramasa

Urban myths of the late eighteenth century suggested that Tokugawa Ieyasu had been troubled by the constant recurrence of the name of one particular swordsmith among his enemies. Late in life, he developed a superstition that blades made by the sixteenth-century school of Muramasa had been specifically cursed to do damage to the Tokugawa family. The reasoning for this, at least as far as the rumours went, was that Ieyasu’s grandfather had been killed by one, his father had been stabbed by one, and Ieyasu injured himself with one when he was a child. His worries only increased when he discovered that in the case of two executions, that of his adulterous wife and supposedly treacherous adopted son, the executioner’s blade had been a Muramasa, too. Over time, Ieyasu came to believe that every one of the generals who had opposed him had wielded a Muramasa blade, including Sanada Yukimura, who had supposedly dealt him a troublesome wound at the Battle of Tennōji in 1615. The attentive reader may note that sources from the time report that, if Ieyasu was wounded at all by Sanada, he was wounded with a spear, but no matter – the fiction was already more alluring than the already shaky facts.

Muramasa blades were highly prized, so it should have come as no surprise that they were in the possession of wealthy members of the aristocracy. Nor should it have been a mystery why aristocrats facing death would insist on their executioner using the sharpest, highest-performance blade available. But the stories about the ‘Curse of the Muramasa’ seem to have served another purpose in eighteenth-century Japan: delivering a chilling frisson to audiences with the reminder that there was a time when someone stood against the Shōgun, and that their legacy lived on, hidden within clans, buried in storehouses, and traded among sword-dealers.

Muramasa blades, it was said, were cursed. Their creator was half-mad, and the weapons he made could impel their wielders into murderous rages. One story tells of a young samurai, Gentaro, up in Edo as part of his obligatory domain service, who sees a Muramasa hanging among the other swords on a dealer’s rack:

Trembling, he withdrew it from its scabbard, and he forgot to breathe. The sword had hidden depths, like morning mist welling up within the metal. Light danced off the blade in the colours of the rainbow . . . Just by holding it in his hand, he could tell it was a masterpiece . . . an artefact suitable for a lord’s treasure house, fated never to come into the hands of a common samurai.

The samurai is even happier when the dealer offers to sell him the blade for a fraction of its true value, although he will not say why. Cheerfully, Gentaro brings the sword back with him to his home domain, where he shows it off to his fellow officers at the monthly sword club. Despite everyone’s gasps of awe, the club chairman tells him the sword is worthless. Suspecting that the chairman merely wants to buy it from him cheaply, Gentaro seeks a second opinion, and is told the whole sorry story of the cursed blades. In a spate of demises that prefigure the calamities of a modern horror film, most people involved in the story are dead within a week, as is the family servant told to throw the sword in a river, who unwisely plans to keep it for himself.

The legend achieved a wider audience in 1797 when it gained a prominent mention in a popular kabuki play Oblique Reflections of Brothel Lives (Satokotoba Awasekagami). Revived in 1815 and again in 1860 with slight variations, the story became a recurring staple of the Japanese theatre. The main narrative concerned a missing girl in the pleasure quarter, and an impoverished son of a merchant desperate to raise the money to buy his lover out of indentured servitude in a brothel. Mixed in with these basic plots are shadows of the Muramasa legend – a cursed Muramasa blade is sold by a hapless sword-dealer, who is soon murdered; it falls into the hands of one of the leading characters, and drives him into a serial-killing spree. As so often happened with kabuki theatre, real-world reportage is hidden within the melodrama. It drew inspirations from the collapse of an Edo bridge in 1807, and the 1820 murder of a capricious geisha by the man who had bankrupted himself to buy her freedom. By the nineteenth century, Muramasa swords were associated with a whole series of half-remembered macabre tales of murder and betrayal, and had come to be linked in the popular mind with the decline of samurai honour into bloody, inconsequential vendettas, and fights over bar-girls or petty debts.

Despite the superior quality of Muramasa blades, they became impossible to sell, and there are cases of some swords on which the smith’s name was doctored, Muramasa becoming altered to Masamune – another smith but without a tainted reputation. In fact, the anti-Tokugawa reputation of the Muramasa blades gave them an unexpected value among those who despised the government. Those few that survived the Tokugawa era, hidden in family vaults, are now worth millions.

Extract from A Brief History of the Samurai, by Jonathan Clements.

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The Year of the Stag

“Clocks are harbingers of funerals; knives mean you want to cut a friendship; ties and necklaces are considered intimate embraces and should not be gifted to casual acquaintances.” Over at the Times website, I explain why whisky is the ideal Chinese New Year Gift. Also ideal for any day with a “y” in it. I mean, you can give me socks if you like, but…

Lapatossu (1937)

As the railroad slowly takes shape from Turku in the south to Vaasa in the north, construction bosses discover that their path is blocked by land belonging to the widow Laurila (Siiri Angerkoski), who will take some persuading. Unexpectedly, they find themselves leaning on the negotiating skills of Lapatossu (Aku Korhonen), an aging, workshy railway builder who reveals a previously unknown knack for disguises.

The Lapatossu stories were originally published at the turn of the twentieth century by the author Juho Nurhonen. The relation of these original tales, however, to Aku Korhonen’s portrayal of the character on film is tenuous at best, with only faint reminders that our easy-going everyman might be a noble fallen on hard times, or some sort of Holy Fool watching the modernisation of the Finnish countryside with wry bafflement. Lapatossu is an old builder on the new railway – in a triumph of unimaginative translation, the film can somehow be found referred to in English as The Old Railroad Worker. But there is so much more to him that that – he seems to slide with chameleon-like ease between the hard-pressed bosses and the happy-go-lucky navvies; he is respected by his fellow workers, and indulged by the cooks and housemaids.

Within the context of my film-by-film marathon of Suomen Filmiteollisuus productions, Lapatossu is a sudden burst of creativity and experimentation. In one scene, the Finnish slang flies so fast that Swedish subtitles sneak onto the screen, to help all those urbane posh people who might have trouble following the gags. Elsewhere, the dialogue takes on a naturalistic tone, with actors interrupting each other or visibly trying to stop themselves giggling at Korhonen’s onscreen antics, while the camera flits between conversationalists, apparently unsure of who is going to speak next. This film has plainly been shot in the short Finnish summer, and the crew make the most of outdoor locations, figuratively shrugging at minor glitches in foley, audio and focus. The music, meanwhile, is oddly terrible, unless the Helsingin Teatteri Orkesteri was somehow deliberately playing the score flat and tunelessly, in imitation of an ad hoc band of amateurs.

There are some notable departures in casting. Jorma Nortimo, once a recurring dastard, more recently a romantic lead, transforms himself once again into the foppish milksop Heikki, by the simple expedient of putting on a pair of spectacles. Aku Korhonen, who played several character roles for Suomen Filmiteollisuus with varying degrees of success, suddenly gets to shine here in the loveable title role, finding a new sidekick in Kaarlo Kartio as Vinski. Lost in the supporting cast since his star turn in Scapegoat (1935), Kartio gets to work as Korhonen’s foil, setting up numerous gags, and channelling Laurel & Hardy in a dance routine in which Korhonen camps it up by donning a shawl and playing the coquette. Korhonen is also visibly charming in his flirtations with the older actresses, shunting the usual half-hearted young-lead B-plot romance out of centre stage, to the extent that the fey Heikki’s ham-fisted wooing of the widow’s daughter Irja (Laila Rihte) is played almost entirely for laughs and cringes.

Lapatossu is somewhat defeated by the picaresque, episodic nature of its origins, as if a bunch of one-page vignettes have been clumsily stapled together until they bulk out to feature length. The saga of the missing cream is solved with broad humour when Lapatossu doses a jug with a strong laxative, while the widow Laurila is briefly won over when Lapatossu disguises himself as a visiting dignitary. But just when you think the film is done, Lapatossu and Vinski run away and join the circus for a pointless interlude in which he masquerades as a strongman.

Possibly because by the time this film was made, the railway had been a fact of everyday life for a generation, there is no sense imparted of the incredible engineering achievement of building a railway from south to north – Lapatossu and his fellow workers might as well be working on a building site. Taken out of historical context, Lapatossu is frankly forgettable, but it is a cut above most other Suomen Filmiteollisuus comedies of its era, and was made at a crucial point in history. Thanks to its 1937 success and the commissioning of two sequels, it and its leads were propelled to austerity stardom in the dark days of wartime. The title character, in particular, became something of an icon among the soldiers of the Winter War.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland

The Daughter of Turan

Khaidu was a ghostly apparition – a figure at the periphery of Khubilai Khan’s world that never left him alone. He would pick and poke at Khubilai’s defences for the rest of Khubilai’s life, occasionally seizing territory outside his fiefdom, occasionally retreating into the steppes. He darted towards Karakorum itself, as if hoping to convene a rebel kurultai. He meddled in Tibetan affairs in an attempt to foster anti-Mongol feeling in the monasteries; he put out feelers to disaffected princelings on the other side of China, in the hope that together they might rise up against the sons of Tolui. Khaidu would even outlive Khubilai by a few years, but never quite got enough support to mount a true challenge. Had Khubilai and Khaidu been duelling over nothing more than Mongolia, perhaps Khaidu would have had the upper hand. Ironically, the very Mongol-based feud that Khaidu perpetrated served to drive Khubilai further towards a Chinese perspective. Without China, Khubilai might not have had the support he needed to shrug Khaidu off.

Marco Polo found the whole thing baffling, but far more interested in stories circulating about Khaidu’s daughter, a towering Amazon whose name he recorded as Aiyaruk (‘Bright Moon’).

Her father often desired to give her in marriage, but she would none of it. She vowed she would never marry till she found a man who could vanquish her in every trial; him she would wed and none else. And when her father saw how resolute she was, he gave a formal consent . . . that she should marry whom she wanted and when she wanted. The lady was so tall and muscular, so stout and shapely withal, that she was almost like a giantess.

Khaidu had set himself up as the protector of old-time Mongol values, in opposition to Khubilai the Sinophile. It was hence only to be expected that Khaidu’s daughter was set up in local legend as some sort of woman warrior, who boasted that she would only marry a man who could beat her at wrestling, and that anyone who failed in this would have to pay her 100 horses.

Aiyaruk supposedly successfully fought off 1,000 challengers over the course of the 1270s. Perhaps a little worried that his daughter might be getting long in the tooth, Khaidu is even reported as suggesting that she should try to let the next one win, but she refused, and won another hundred horses for the family herd. With a tacit admission that nobody was going to be good enough for her, she gave up on men entirely and accompanied Khaidu on his endless war against Khubilai’s warriors.

And ye must know that after this her father never went on a campaign but she went with him. And gladly he took her, for not a knight in all his train played such feats of arms as she did. Sometimes she would quit her father’s side, and make a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father; and this she did many a time.

Remarkably, most scholars suspect that there is an element of truth in the story of Aiyaruk, not least because while Polo in China is hearing of her exploits, his contemporary Rashid al-Din in Persia is writing down the same story, with the same names. Rashid, however, injects a disapproving note, that ‘people suspected there was some kind of relationship between [Khaidu] and his daughter.’

The story would grow with the telling, particularly in Persia, where legends arose about a king of ‘Turan’ (Persian: Central Asia), whose beautiful daughter insisted that any suitor should overcome a series of trials in order to win her hand in marriage. The story flourished in several variants as The Daughter of Turan, in Persian: ‘Turan-dokht’.

It is perhaps most familiar to the Western reader in a libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, first performed in 1926, shortly after the death of the composer of the accompanying music, Giacomo Puccini:

This is the law: Turandot the Pure
Will be the bride of the man of royal blood
Who shall solve the riddles which she shall set.
But if he fail in this test
He must submit his proud head to the sword!

indexPuccini’s Turandot is a world away from Khaidu’s real-life resistance in western China. It retains garbled concepts of China and Tartary, and mixes elements of Mongol and Chinese culture. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to see a strand of true history informing a strand of modern life. Khaidu would eventually die in 1301, from wounds received in a failed strike at Karakorum itself – but his daughter, or a phantom of her, would spring to life on the opera stage in Milan six centuries later.

From A Brief History of Khubilai Khan by Jonathan Clements.

Like Sleep or Shadow (1937)

The arrival of city-boy surveyor Yrjö (Jorma Nortimo) drastically disrupts the way of life in a remote Ostrobothnian village. He falls for Eliina (Ansa Ikonen), the disabled daughter of a local bigwig, whose devout sister Johanna (Ester Toivonen) is torn between two suitors, her life-long neighbour and betrothed, and a newer arrival of whom her father disapproves.

Kuin uni ja varjo was based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Eino Railo, which was at the very height of its popularity – in 1937, it had been reprinted three times in the two years since it was published. Certain elements of it seem to break with Finnish filmic tradition, particularly the pat romantic denouements so beloved of Suomen Filmiteollisuus. Spoiler warning: only one of the two leading couples ties the knot by the end, in a miserable ceremony in which the bride and groom wear Gothic black, a man bitterly proclaims his religious faith after being blinded, and a jilted lover almost dies of consumption on the sidelines.

Much of the tension revolves around the clash of privileged newcomers rolling into a town where everybody knows everybody, and has assumed for years that fates are well and truly predestined. Life has not changed a whole lot in the countryside for decades – Yrjö’s arrival is a taste of things to come, as the horse and cart, the church as the centre of village life, and the expectations of Finnish youth are all about to be radically transformed. The wedding scene that closes the film is supposedly a happy ending, but is also a glimpse of a dying rural culture.

The likes of Yrjö serve as a sudden, unexpected wake-up call that there is a whole world beyond the edge of the village, and that things really don’t have to be the way that the villagers have assumed. The nuances of Ostrobothnian language fly right over my head, but are apparently a Thing here, as are a series of unintentionally ridiculous fight scenes, in which men heartily wrestle with one another as if nobody has ever suggested they try throwing a punch. It is also oddly jarring to see a 19th-century church congregation belting out a hymn, since my 21st century experience has been one of Finns staring glumly at their shoes while the church organist plods through the tune and a lone cantor sings along at the back.

Ansa Ikonen, a major stage actress who had thus far only appeared in bit parts for Suomen Filmiteollisuus (better known, in fact for films by the rival studio Suomi Filmi), gets top billing on the poster in the role of Eliina, for which she lurches around on crutches and simpers adoringly at Yrjö. In a scene that might seem clichéd today but was probably a winner in its time, she has a dream sequence at a village dance in which she leaps to her feet and dances with Yrjö, only to be woken from her reverie when her crutches drop loudly to the floor.

Ester Toivonen is winningly severe as the religious Johanna, although she disappears for entire stretches of the film, leaving her rival suitors to duke it out between them. The third big female name on the poster is Laila Rihte as the serving girl Kerttu, whom I barely noticed for the first half of the film, before she is suddenly parachuted into the drama as an alternate love interest. Blink and you also miss Kaarlo Kartio, as ever unrecognisable in another brief character role.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland

Flowers of Edo

The Sumida River was sure to rise every year, either directly endangering the Low City slums or increasing the spread of rat- or fly-borne diseases. But in a town of close-packed wooden houses, every one with a hearth, the greatest danger was fire. Periodic conflagrations destroyed entire districts of the city, and could be kicked off by a single errant spark. The most boggling was the Meireki Fire of January 1657 (like many such events, it derives its name from the reign-period in which it took place), which began, like some horror movie foreshadowing, with a haunted kimono.

This article of clothing had been owned by three girls in succession, every one of whom had met with a sudden death. Believing the kimono to be cursed, its new owners ordered it to be burned at a Buddhist temple. A gust of strong wind lifted up fragments of the burning silk and deposited them on a temple roof, which soon caught alight. The flames jumped from temple to tavern, over bridges and storehouses, burning down six entire districts. In the chaos, a second fire started, perhaps from a neglected cooking stove or a dropped tobacco pipe. With the populace already distracted by the first fire, the second raged through the samurai district, burning the inmates of the city prison alive, and even destroying Edo Castle. Over 100,000 people, a third of the entire population, died in the two days of the Meireki Fire, not merely from the flames, but from the wintry aftermath. Even as the wreckage still smouldered, snow began to fall with mocking irony, dooming many newly homeless residents to death by hypothermia.

Fires were so commonplace and so feared that the locals did not even dare to call them what they were. With a customarily poetic fatalism, they referred to them as ‘the flowers of Edo’. Many houses gained rooftop crow’s nests to allow the occupants to see how close nearby fires were getting. A common feature of every district was the hinomi-yagura (fire-watching tower), which looks to modern eyes like a pair of telegraph poles placed close enough together that the rungs of a ladder can run between them. At the top was a bell and a tiny perch no bigger than a footstool, allowing residents to peer into the next city block to see how great the risk was whenever they smelled smoke.

Eventually, Edo gained a new class of ‘firemen’ although their job description was somewhat different from what one might expect. Exhibiting a certain resignation about the impossibility of putting out a fire, they instead ransacked the house, carrying out the valuables to spare them the flames. Private enterprises rather than publically-funded do-gooders, the firemen existed as multiple rival brigades, often leading to scrums of contending rescuers at any disaster scene. Standard bearers carrying the standard of a particular firemen’s guild would perch as close to the burning building as possible, so that everyone could see who had arrived. Fire-hoses, using a relatively meagre hand-pumped stream from the nearest canal, were intended not to dowse the flames, but protect the firemen as they worked.

Over the years, it became apparent that the best way to protect one’s business was to strike a deal with the firemen in advance, so that they were sure to come quickly in the event of trouble. In order to make allegiances clear, many businesses started to hang the standards of particular guilds over their doors. This was the origin of the decorated noren, the half-curtain that can still be found at the entrance to many a shop or noodle bar.

From An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo by Jonathan Clements, available now (US/UK).