Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Nobunaga and the Crying Cycad

I love presenting peculiar ukiyo-e and talk about them, so, as I did on my personal blog when talking about the Honnoji Accident, I decided to repeat the experience, this time focusing on a curious legend about Nobunaga.

I'll report today's story as coming as straight from Wikipedia, but various versions exist: "The cycad tree in the temple is over 1100 years old and is well known for its mysterious history. Oda Nobunaga [...] transplanted this cycad to Azuchi Castle in what is now Shiga prefecture. However, every night a strange voice was heard in Azuchi Castle saying “Take me back to Myokokuji”, and an unnatural atmosphere covered the castle and disturbed the people there. This angered Nobunaga and he let his men cut the tree down. The tree is said to have bled from the blows, fainted from the pain and looked so much like a great snake that even brave Nobunaga became afraid and sent the tree back to Myokokuji. "

This is an example of a typical yokai story relished with a famous samurai and a "monument" (in this case a "natural" one), more than enough to make it a nice subject for woodblock prints.

I'll start this "digest" with the first specimen in chronological order that I got to find: a print by Yoshifusa, dated 1860.
This print features a furious Nobunaga rushing to inspect the noisy cycad with Ranmaru, who's helding a lanter that enlightens only a little bit of the tree, inscreasing the "scary factor", since the most of the tree is left in mysterious darkness.
Nobunaga is grabbing his sword, maybe ready to strike a first blow against the moaning sotetsu.

This second print is dated 1864 and it's a work by Yoshitsuya.
This print is part of a collection dedicated to the battles of Hideyoshi.
Curiously it depicts the legend of Nobunaga and the cycad instead of an actual battle.
Here the yokai vibe of the cycad is shown in all its terrifying glory: the tree is shown as Nobunaga's men are trying to cut it down; at this point it shows monstruos features, snake tongues and demonic eyes, as it pours drops of blood (here rendered with the violence and dynamism of bullets) on the men that can only run away in fear as Nobunaga can't hide his disappointment and Ranmaru his surprise.
It's interesting to note the snow covering the branches of the cycad, suggesting the full winter season.

After the dynamism of Yoshitsuna, it's time for stepping back to another elegant rendition of the story, this time rendered by Yoshitoshi in a print of 1865:
We have again the partial illumination of the tree by Ranmaru, and Nobunaga pointing treatingly against the tree, that appears as moving in the darkness.

As I told you before, in fact, there are various versions of this story.
In the one picked by Yoshitoshi, Nobunaga asked Ranmaru to cut the tree down once he decided that he had enough of the cycad's crying, but before he could do so the cycad ran away from Azuchi to reach its original location.

Yoshitoshi interpreted this legend from his collection of pictures dedicated to ghost stories again in 1891, with a "remake" of the same collection:
This time the protagonist of the picture is Ranmaru alone, startled as he witnesses the run of the cycad into the darkness.
This artwork is extremely refined and the elegance of the composition stuns the watcher.

--So, if you ever happen around Osaka make sure to take a peek to the karesansui garden and its marvellous millenary cycad (now recognized a national natural monument in Japan) hosted in the grounds of Myokokuji! It would be a way to pay your homage to this whiny yet undefeated "enemy" of Nobunaga!


  1. It's kind of funny how Nobunaga is labelled as "Ota/Oda Harunaga" in the picture with the men battling the snake-tree. Is that a thing in Ukiyo-e? I remember he was listed as Harunaga in a different picture too, but I don't remember what picture or why.

    Where do you even find these weird legends? XD

    1. Yes, the censorship of the names is the result of a series of "moral rules" released under Tokugawa's rule.
      It was forbidden referring to samurai clan of Sengoku era in popular entertainment, so it's not only a thing that applied to ukiyo-e but mostly to kabuki plays.
      The authors changed the names of the protagonists, then: this way it couldn't be proved that they were referring to actual historical events, and pass Sengoku feats as "fiction".

      XD I'm a fan of ukiyo-e, so when I search for stuff of my favourite authors I happen to stumble on such things XD
      Since I could find a decent number of prints on the issue I decided to share the story :D
      I'm planning to make other posts like this :D

  2. Questo articolo mi è piaciuto moltissimo! Grazie per aver condiviso queste informazioni. Quando ci vediamo, dovrai raccontarmi meglio! Ad ogni modo, Nobunaga sarebbe molto utile alle riunioni di condominio. No?

    1. Storia divertente, vè ^o^ ?
      Conto di fare altri posts simili, dedicati a Nobu attraverso le ukiyo-e :D

    2. Li attenderò con ansia! Tra l'altro le immagini sono bellissime.
      Tra l'altro l'espressione di disappunto Nobu nella tavola dove i vassalli si fanno sconfiggere dalla pianta è qualcosa di fantastico.

    3. Ahahah, l'ho pensato anch'io XDDDD Guardavo l'espressione di Nobu e pensavo "LOL, sembra tutto tranne che impaurito" x'DDD