May 15, 2019
Respecting the practice of a noble martial art, surpassing the limits of human being, glorifying your warrior ancestry and honoring your fiefdom, those were all values that the contestants to the toshiya trial at the Sanjusangendo temple had to respect, but what of them in reality? Even if one, by training day and night for years on managed to become “first under the heaven”, he would only gain a meager salary and a short termed glory, and if he didn’t, the only option out was seppuku. Why were so many lives destroyed by this practice and why was so much money wasted only for the
self-satisfaction of a lonely chief?
Made by legendary gekiga author Hitoshi Hirata and based on real-life events, Kyudo Shikon recounts in vivid details the whole history of the Toshiya Matsuri.
Created in 1606, this trial consisted in shooting as much arrows as possible from one end to the other of the Sanjusangendo temple, 120 meters long, without touching the roof or the floor. It was considered an almost impossible task as you had to aim at a very precise point for them not to get stuck in the beams and still reach this distance.
The first samurai to take up this challenge was Heibe-Shigemasa Asaoka who, upon hearing that Hideyoshi Toyotomi himself tried but never succeeded in this task, decided to try his hand at it while passing by and, this day, managed to shoot 51 arrows across the hall. His feat was soon to be spread all across the country. Now victim of their pride, all the masters from the different fiefs decided they had the duty to hold the record to gain more dignity and respect.
What started as a personal challenge quickly became a race from the part of all these masters to gain this title, not hesitating a single second to impoverish their population and paying heavy taxes to organize the ceremony, planning murders and scheme to obtain an ephemeral glory.
That is how this bloody tradition began to be a huge phenomenon: countless different challengers would follow, the record got higher and higher everytime, it changed so fast that sometimes they would only hold the title of “first under the heaven” for a few days. All those who failed committed seppuku as to not regain their fief in dishonor, creating a whole graveyard dedicated to them. Thirty years later, the record had already reached 5444 arrows shot across the hall in a day. Deemed by professionals to be the ultimate limit that a human body could reach, this was supposed to be the end of it all, except it only really marks the beginning of this story as the overly proud master of the kii fiefdom decided to hold a grand operation to search for an ultimate warrior that could be able to beat this record. That is how, during a training camp held in the countryside, a stray arrow killed an innocent villager. His son, Kanza Hoshiemon, furious of this injustice, kills in turn the teacher of this training camp in order to avenge the death of his father. Liable for decapitation, he is eventually recruited as a candidate to be “first under the heaven” by showing his unwavering resolve to give meaning to his father’s death.
Kyudo Shikon takes upon itself to recounts the life of Kanza Hoshiemon from this point on up until his adulthood and the eventual abolition of this practice. Starting as a rather naïve teenager, he will be faced with many hardships, constantly questioning the intricate value of man and of this practice.
Hiroshi Hirata took a meticulous care to show every step of the way of this young man to become one of the best in archery, entirely devoted to this, he will start by burning his own house as if to burn his past life and to symbolize the end of his lineage of bushi, one of the lowest social status there is. Abused by his training masters that are still resentful of what he has done, he will suffer through every form of rigorous training, similar to tortures at time like getting dragged by a horse while being tied down or having his arms stretched with ropes, he also has more practical training like learning the different poses needed for the trial or even spiritual training like focusing his mind on a single point for a whole day which leads to metaphysical and out of body-experience. All these are very crucial as they reinforce the character as to make him a real man and make him learn the true notion of sacrifice, as well as make him realize the whole futility of this thing by the end of the manga. This is one thing that will also be reinforced by the jealousy and betrayal that are punctuated all around of it.
What makes this manga even more interesting is that it is not only the story of Kanza, the story is also told through the perspective of many different characters such as the previous contestants, getting in a few pages to show their hopes, their motivation, the errors and sacrifices they have committed. Having to end all relationship with your family and your lover, killing your opponent to increase your chances of winning, ever being so close to succeed but having all your training be worth nothing only because of the bad weather, those are all things that happen to these side character who becomes each very sympathetic and strong figures the moment they are introduced.
Being very wordy and having plenty of side characters introduced, it would be easy to be lost by this vast amount of informations but it never really feels that way. Yes, it can be very dense especially when recounting the historical events but it isn’t any worse than any manga published around that time and it’s pace easily make up for it as it knows how to switch subtly between the different parts of narrations which makes it flow very naturally.
As for the art, anyone that has ever read a samurai gekiga will be instantly familiar with the artstyle: it offers an important degree of realism as well as an impressive amount of details, be it in the wide shots used to show the different buildings, the shooting of the arrows and the few fight scenes that are reinforced by a near perfect composition, the wide variety of traditional or ceremonial clothes, or even the godly apparitions that come to test the will of our protagonist. Every bit of kyudo shikon is gripping and is mesmerizing, it gives off this strong raw power and still holds up very well to the test the time even 50 years later.
All in all, I genuinely think Kyudo Shikon is on par with the greatest samurai stories like lone wolf or kamui den and holds itself as one of the few masterpieces of Hiroshi Hirata.
Reviewer’s Rating: 9
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