Benkei

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Benkei by Kikuchi Yosai
Benkei with Yoshitsune

Musashibō Benkei (武蔵坊弁慶?, 1155–1189), 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.

Biography[edit]

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 is said to have defeated 200 men in each battle he was personally involved in.

He joined the cloister at an early age and travelled widely among the Buddhist monasteries of Japan. During this period, monasteries 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 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) tall. At this point, he left the Buddhist monastery and became a yamabushi, a member of a sect of mountain ascetics who were recognisable by their black caps. Japanese prints often show Benkei wearing this cap.

Benkei is said to have posted himself at Gojō 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 cross the bridge to confront him, and all that did met swift death at the hands of the gigantic man, who killed in excess of 300 fully trained soldiers. 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).

Cultural references[edit]

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 Noh play Ataka, Benkei must beat his own master (disguised as a porter) in order to avoid breaking his disguise. Ataka is later adapted as the kabuki play Kanjinchō, and filmed by Akira Kurosawa as The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail.

Contemporary references[edit]

  • The Tale of Benkei was serialized in the first three issues of the short-lived British comic book series Tornado in 1979.
  • The third pilot of the original Getter team was Tomoe Musashi, and his successor after his death was Kuruma Benkei. The two characters are combined for a more direct tribute in the character of Musashibou Benkei in the OAV New Getter Robo, who is also a monk.
  • A lumberkack called Benta is depicted as the inspiration behind the creation of Benkei as a fictional character by Father Myoun in Osamu Tezuka's manga-fleuve Hi no Tori.
  • In the video game Ōkami, Benkei is first seen on a bridge fishing for his 1000th sword. In the sequel, Okamiden, he is seen on the Sunken Ship questioning Kurow for his flute, which would be his thousandth weapon.
  • He also appears in the collectible card game, Yu-Gi-Oh!, as a DARK-type Warrior monster by the name of "Armed Samurai - Ben Kei". The original Japanese version of the card depicted a warrior monk pierced with many arrows, referencing Benkei's famous death. The arrows were removed for the international release, ostensibly for being too graphic. Additionally, the "Superheavy Samurai" archetype of monsters is based on the various stages of Benkei's life, for example, Superheavy Samurai Sword-999 "Kyukyukyu" being a reference to the 999 swords Benkei collected before being defeated by Yoshitsune.
  • A highly fictionalized version of Benkei is the central character of the Shike saga of novels written by Robert Shea. In the novels, his name is Jebu, a warrior monk from the order of Zinja. The books detail his life from age 17 to his meeting with Yoshitsune, right through to the Mongol Invasions of Japan.
  • In the manga Detective Conan (v.9, no.4-6; anime episodes 27 & 28), a statue of Benkei and his standing death are one of the central clues for solving a murder case.
  • The band Whispered released an album titled "Thousand Swords" containing the songs titled "Thousand Swords (The story of Saitō Musashibō Benkei Part I)" and "Blade in the Snow (The story of Saitō Musashibō Benkei Part II)".
  • Edward Newgate (or Whitebeard), a prominent character in the popular One Piece franchise, was partially inspired by Benkei. Newgate is abnormally large in stature, wields a polearm, and died in a standing position after suffering innumerable injuries in battle.
  • The Saints and Heros DLC pack for Total War: Shogun 2 features a unit called Benkei's Blades.
  • In the Metal Hero series Metalder, one of the enemy characters of the protagonist is an android named Ben K, in honor of him. He dies exactly like his historical counterpart, standing still with arrows through him.
  • In the video game Kenseiden, Benkei appears as a Warlock Boss in level 4.
  • In the videogame Mystical Ninja: Starring Goemon Benkei is a gatekeeper blocking the Gojo Ohashi Bridge leading out of Zazen Town. In order to defeat him, Goemon and his friends need help from a young fisherman named Ushiwaka. It's subliminally indicated that Benkei and Ushiwaka are kind of rivals.
  • Benkei is the title of a popular song written by the band Boy Hits Car
  • In their 2013 album Arts Martiens the French rap group IAM has a song named "Benkei & Minamoto".
  • In Flint the Time Detective, not only does Benkai feature in an episode, but the Time Shifter known as "Monk" in English is based upon him.
  • In the manga Shokugeki no Soma, the battle between Souma and Mimasaka is compared to the battle between Yoshitsune and Benkei.

Notes[edit]

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

References[edit]

External links[edit]