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  • Warrior/Monk, Demon/SaintHumor and Parody in the Late Medieval Tale of Benkei
  • Roberta Strippoli (bio)

The late medieval tale known as Benkei monogatari (The Tale of Benkei) recounts and embellishes the life and adventures of Saitō no Musashibō Benkei (?–1189) from his birth through his engagement as the trusted retainer of the hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159–1189). In comparison with Yoshitsune, whose historical existence is solidly documented, not much is known about the real Benkei; other than a brief mention in Azuma kagami (Mirror of the East), his name does not appear in any nonliterary documents.1 Though factual information about Benkei is scarce, stories about him abound, forming a rich and varied corpus of works produced in multiple historical periods and different regions of Japan—a corpus that I refer to as the Benkei legend.2

Benkei monogatari, a tale existing in numerous variants, encompasses what appears to be the first comic renderings of the legend; the variants of the tale have been only briefly treated in Western languages.3 This article explores one of these versions, a late-sixteenth-century text known as Musashibō e-engi (The Illustrated Story [End Page 39] of Musashibō).4 As I will demonstrate, those familiar with other narratives concerning Benkei will immediately recognize this text as a comic rather than tragic rendition of the legend. It contrasts markedly, for example, with Gikeiki (Chronicles of Yoshitsune, fifteenth century), which tells the story of Benkei and Yoshitsune in a decidedly tragic mode.

Following an overview of the development of the Benkei legend through the Muromachi period and a brief discussion of what we know concerning the variants of Benkei monogatari, I present an analysis and partial translation of Musashibō e-engi. I suggest that the text is best understood as a parody of warrior tales in general (and of tragic narratives of the lives of Benkei and Yoshitsune in particular), as well as of narratives of the early life of the Buddha. While my argument concerning parody is not conclusive, a comparison of Musashibō e-engi with other renderings of the Benkei legend serves to highlight some of this variant’s distinctive features and comic aspects.

My reading of Musashibō e-engi is primarily based on an analysis of the humor to be found within the work itself—humor that mainly derives from its presentation of Benkei as an anomalous figure or personality Musashibō e-engi, first of all, presents Benkei as a trickster-like figure, poised between the realms of what might be termed refined culture and wild, untamed nature. The text also emphasizes, and exploits for comic effect, the incongruous qualities of Benkei’s identity as a warrior-monk. In addition, while some of the characters within the tale perceive Benkei as a demon, he is also viewed as a religious saint.

The Benkei Legend

Given that the stories of Benkei and Yoshitsune are, at least following their initial meeting and Benkei’s submission to Yoshitsune, inseparable, it is not surprising that few studies have focused exclusively on Benkei. Because of the scholarly attention given to Yoshitsune, however, the general development of texts concerning the Benkei legend are fairly well documented. In his 1935 study of Yoshitsune, Shimazu Hisamoto discusses these texts at some length, and Helen Craig McCullough’s study of the Yoshitsune legend, which draws heavily on Shimazu, also provides an overview of and commentary on the treatment of Yoshitsune and Benkei in a range of sources and genres through the end of the Muromachi period.5 [End Page 40]

The Benkei legend began with Benkei’s sporadic and marginal first appearances in Heike monogatari, an account of the Genpei War (1180–1185). Heike monogatari exists in multiple variants, all of which narrate the fall of Taira no Kiyomori (1118–1181), his family, and his allies at the hands of a coalition led by Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147–1199). In this work, Benkei is introduced as a retainer of Yoshitsune, Yoritomo’s younger half brother and an important leader of the Minamoto forces. His name appears in most cases in lists enumerating warriors, much as it does in Azuma kagami. There is no hint that Benkei holds...


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