Saito Musashibo Benkei was a historic monk warrior in feudal Japan of great strength and a legendary figure. For centuries the character of Benkei has been subject to Kabuki and Noh plays and to numerous depictions on Japanese art objects. He is the epitome of a guy strong like a grizzly bear, but with a big heart and loyal to his lord - still one of the greatest virtues in Japanese society.
Benkei's birth and youth is a series of legends. His mother was the daughter of a blacksmith. According to one story, his father was the head of a temple shrine and had raped his mother. Another legend sees him as the offspring of a Japanese temple god. And he was said not to have been born after 9 months of pregnancy, but after 18 months - a monster child with wild hair and long teeth.
Whatever the circumstances of his birth may have been, this child was apparently an innate troublemaker and an indomitable little rowdy. Soon everybody called him Oniwaka - the "devil's child" or "young devil".
His enervated foster parents solved the problem by giving the little rowdy into the custody of a cloister. When the monks finally had enough of him, they sent him to another temple - ... and so on. Benkei got to know a lot of temples and monasteries during his youth.
At the age of seventeen he was a giant of nearly supernatural strength and two meters tall (6.5 feet). Being in permanent trouble with his monk superiors and peers, he finally quit and joined the Yamabushi, a sect of wandering bandit monks, who wore a small black cap as a sign of group recognition. Images of Benkei on Japanese prints show him often with this little black cap.
Being a monk and warrior at the same time, was nothing uncommon in feudal Japan. The Buddhist cloisters had played a dominant military and political role until the reign of the tyrant Oda Nobunaga, who fought fierce wars against the cloisters and finally subdued them in the bloody and brutal besiege of the monastery at Mt. Hiei in 1571.
As a Yamabushi, Saito Musashibo Benkei, as he called himself now, lead the life of a robber. He had posted himself at Goyo bridge in Kyoto, where he deprived every sword holder of his weapon, who passed the bridge. Thus he had collected 999 swords.
One evening, when Benkei was luring for his sword number 1000 at Goyo bridge, Yoshitsune, a young man of small and fragile stature passed by. He wore a nice sword and played the flute.
It was an unequal fight, but the outcome was different than one would have expected. Not the physically superior Benkei won, but the agile Yoshitsune. He defeated the crude giant with his swift and skillful movements and superior fighting techniques.
Yoshitsune had received his sword training by the Tengu. They are mythological creatures, half-human/half-bird, and first-class fighters in martial art.
Images of Yoshitsune's training in sword fighting and martial arts with the Tengu belong to the most charming images of Japanese woodblock prints. They are usually found in the form of triptychs or diptychs. The Tengu are depicted as funny-looking small goblins. The chief goblins are recognizable by their huge noses.
After this remarkable "mother of all sword fights", Benkei vowed eternal loyalty to Yoshitsune. His life took a complete turn. From now on he accompanied his new lord through numerous adventures and battles as the faithful vassal and second banana.
It was the time of the Genpei wars, when the Minamato clan finally defeated their arch-rivals, the Taira clan in fierce fighting. Yoshitsune was the brilliant military leader of the Minamato. Japanese history and legend books and Kabuki plays are full of Yoshitoshi's audacious and clever moves. And always at his side, his faithful vassal Benkei, feared by the enemy and revered by book readers and movie and theater spectators.
Benkei remained a character loved by the children of today's Japan like "Pooh Bear" by American kids.
Yoshitsune reached the peak of his success in the naval battle of Dannoura, when he lead the Minamato to their ultimate victory over the Taira. But things took a bad turn for him. when his own brother Yoritomo had no scruples to go after him.
When Yoshitsune had to flee from his brother, Benkei proved to be a real friend. He accompanied his master during a two year ordeal, when they had to flee and hide from the troops of the evil Yoritomo.
Now Benkei showed that he was more than a crude Rambo fighter. More than once he bailed his master out of dangerous situations not by using force, but cunning tricks. Famous is the episode when he deceived a checkpoint control occupied by Yoritomo's men.
But neither the great physical forces nor cleverness could evade the inevitable destiny. In the end, Yoshitsune with Benkei and a few remaining companions had been encircled in the castle of Takadachi. Yoshitsune first killed his own family to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy. Then he committed suicide.
Benkei died as an upright hero. Pierced by numerous arrows he fought to the very end. Even when he was lying dead on the ground, he was still protecting his master. His huge body blocked the entrance to Yoshitoshi's room and nobody dared to step over him.
The Japanese legend goes that the dead Yoshitsune and Benkei were only body doubles and that the real Benkei and Yoshitsune escaped and lead a happy life until the end of their days.
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Author: Dieter Wanczura