During the ending days of the Samurai, an evil mythology comes true for a reluctant hero.
A young boy is reared to become Japan's saviour, based solely on a legend. He just wants to be a kid, angering his father and creating a rift between them. When the 'hero' is grown, signs of the evil of lore coming true upset his world. He struggles with the reality of the situation as his neighbors and the country prepare for a war between the worlds of the living and the soulless.
A fire, thousands of years old, glows a light that has been stoked by the hands of hundreds of men and their fathers. Feeding the fire is necessity and the only desire for those who decided their lives would be dedicated to the flame. Never will the fire diminish, for its heat and soul are a part of legend. In the fire goes wood from an ancient forest, including shoots of bamboo for strength and flexibility, and herbs from the oldest garden that will give the metal life and divine protection. The enhanced heat will warm a most sacred pit, full of the finest ore from an ominous valley. The impurities skimmed out over time, until the master smith would decide the time was right. The fire and the molten ore are merely half of this special recipe, one that can only be outdone by the tenders’ knowledge of metal and the hammer.
The glowing ooze is drawn out, poured into a rough mold that has been perfected over time. While it cools, (Shinto) Priests will fend off mischievous spirits like the Oni, and meld into the steel good thoughts and prayers. Above the roar of the furnace and crackle of steel, the vestigial men speak sacred words learned through teachings unwritten. The men that fold and hammer the steel are also cleansed, as is the anvil and tools. When the rod of steel is heated again over the coals and dropped on the anvil, the Shinto bell is rung. Its deep resonance vibrates through everything, signifying a beginning and in all hopes, an end.
The elder blacksmith holds the shank end of the metal as his pupils level hammer blows on the cooling steel. The master turns the shaft and commands the students when they need to fold or change their rhythm. His eyes remain vigilant, looking deep into the heart of the emerging blade. The day progresses, the young blade cools and is heated, is hammered, and cools again. The process repeats; more heating; more scrutiny; more shaping.
As time is lost, a long, thin blade is presents itself, hammered smooth and in need of a sharpening stone. The master smith pours sakii over the blade, and spends endless hours polishing and honing the steel. Tolerance of the edge is fine. His scrutiny will be depended upon by the swordsman that will someday carry it. When he thinks it is time, the master puts on a hilt, checks the balance and edge with gentle majesty, weaving it through the air. Once he is satisfied, the swordsmith hands it to a priest.
Another blessing is given.
Master artisans of a different type take hold of the steel, and place paint on the shaft that will etch into its sheen. This display is beautiful, intended to warn evil of the blade's strength. The etched art pulls from all that is good, fusing with the mighty shaft. And to doubly ensure its fortitude, a Guuji wraps a menacing jade dragon onto the hilt, the heart of the most ferocious beast beating in the palms of the brandisher. The passing of power and strength from feared beast will hopefully be seeded into a revered saviour, a man conferred by fate and willing to accept the ultimate sacrifice. The warrior's testament will bind him to history. This is the way it was...
Young women of Shenshentzen slough through rice fields. Able men furrow channels and cast nets. Older, skilled members of the village toil with repairs, weaving, fire tending, or smithing. Their work is communal with each person contributing to the whole, keeping to a level of living just above meager. Serenity is fragile, with any chance of disruption suppressed by work and prayer. The constant rhythm of both is a regimen of stability keeping sloth and evil at bay.
The village stands on ground laid flat more than a century ago, its location foretold by the priests and labored on by the great-grandfathers of present-day dwellers. From time unknown, this group has been tightly woven together, with nary an outside influence. Relatively unchanged since the days when corner posts were driven into the earth, many elders frequently reflect on days gone. Olden times full of melancholy and heroic feats. There are mythic tales the elders play out in their heads, fanciful acts and colorful surroundings. The rainbow thoughts have hardly anything to do with themselves, though they would like to be remembered that way. To be sung about and hallowed, and idolized. Many days, the elders just sit and remember, and watch.
Few people stand with their friends and speak. Talk, when initiated, is of the weather, the crops, the fishing, and hardly nothing else. Down a path walk a man and his son, quiet and humble. The adult, a farmer, seems weary but is not that old at all. The boy, five or six years old, moves his feet quickly to keep up with his quickening father. Head down, the boy is diligent as they rush by some field workers. "Keep up," the man says, "We’ll soon be there!" The small boy works hard to stay close.
Charging up to a basket weaver, they gain the attention of people nearby, "Ihorii, you have them?"
Sitting in front of his small home, a typical bamboo and reed structure, Ihorii grudgingly stops his weaving work to look up, "Yuubou, everyday you ask me the same question. You know I am busy, what makes you think that today is different than yesterday?" He puts his hands on his hips to show that he is angrier now than the day before.
Unimpressed, the waiting Yuubou asks again, "So, do you have them?"
Ihorii frowns as he drops his arms. Turning away, he stands to walk inside his hut, mumbling all the way in. Bending down to his son, Yuubou is still hopeful, "Are you ready, Kibou? You will see." His father’s eyes begin to glow, "They will be glorious!" The little boy pays no heed, totally engrossed with his fingers.
Yuubou turns, "Come, my son," and walks as his son begins to follow. The interested neighbors, having once complete attention, now shake their heads and return to their business.
Over by the village temple is a small, clear area where Yuubou and Kibou come to a stop. Handing a sword over to his son, the father is elated, "Kibou, this sword is your life, and today will be the beginning." Kibou takes the sword without emotion. For him, it is just a big stick, and he begins to tap it on the ground.
"No, no, little Kibou. Hold it up straight, like so." Yuubou proceeds to show his boy the proper way to handle a sword, lifting it up, pointing to the sky, with his hands clutching the hilt, and holding it close in at his waist. Stone-faced and looking quite proud, father sees that son has no care about his words. The end of Kibou’s stick bounces off the ground, making slight indentation on the earth.
Kibou’s unwillingness to imitate causes Yuubou to berate his son, "Kibou! Pay attention." Kibou suddenly stops tapping the sword, and lowers his head. Yuubou comes down to his boy, lifting the pouting boy’s head so he may look into his eyes. "Listen to me, Kibou. This is very important." Kibou twists the sword in his hand, and stays focused on the ruts he creates in the ground. No other thought but this crosses his mind as his father continues to speak. "Kibou, my champion son, learning the sword is but a small step. Once you master it, you will go on to other great teachings. This is just a small, little step." Yuubou demonstrates with his hand, a few inches off the ground, how small the step is.
Kibou raises his foot to touch his father’s hand, and speaks meekly, "Small?"
"Yes, little Kibou. And once you have raised yourself up, there are endless places you can go." His voice is no longer hushed and stern, but very excited. "It will be magical!"
A look of wonder fills the boy’s eyes, but just slightly for his years. Only so much can fathom what his father has told him. So he steps back. Yuubou proudly stands up, and also takes a step back.
Father and son raise their bamboo swords together, tips pointing upward to the breathless sky; hands clenched tight at the hilt, eyes focused on each other. Kibou’s fervent father sings a poem about faith, "All is not lost, till hope is cast off." It is short, allowing Yuubou to begin Kibou’s training with a soothing cadence. Slowly, the old man moves his feet about, showing Kibou how not to become unbalanced. The movements are difficult at first, yet Kibou’s fertile mind only needs a moment to grasp the steps. Kibou’s eyes glean, and his father hopes that they will forever.
Through the days and seasons, the ritual of learning goes on. As a young boy, Kibou does not tire easily, and is attentive to his father, dutifully obeying each day’s exercise. He does not question, nor does he understand. Not that it matters, for his father is larger than life, a hero, a god. Kibou cannot help but admire his father. His blind faith is endless. After a short time, during each session, the boy no longer has full awareness. He becomes numb to all the motions. Blocking, thrusting, and not knowing why he does what he does; Kibou’s heart is too large to stop his father - a hit, a slash, a stab, and a parry to finish. To complete, every night there are more lessons concerning nature, and prayers in defense from evil. Kibou’s education is to rival any priest or samurai. It all seems endless.
Cherry blossoms bloom ten times, until the dutiful has met his fill. Yuubou continues to educate his growing boy, though Kibou’s distaste for each new day grows. His anger becomes his strength, often hurting his father, who only praises Kibou after a stinging blow. But, Kibou can only hold so much anger so today, before going out, "Father, I am tired of the teaching," he voices. "It’s useless." Kibou puts down the now aged bamboo sword, tossing it aside in their small home as if it were a dirty towel.
"You cannot say that!" Yuubou replies sternly, racing over to the discarded sword. He moves his hands over the bamboo, picking it up and showing it to Kibou. The look in his eyes is earnest, "This takemitou, have I told you what it represents?"
Kibou sighs out the answer, "Strength. My inner strength, channeled through it."
Moving closer, the worried father attempts to hand back the sword that his son has held for so many years apparently without concern. Kibou will not accept it, so Yuubou tries to make it all pertinent, "More than your strength goes into the 'blade,' but also your will and fortitude. All that you are is wielded inside of it."
Kibou is still unmoved, "It’s just wood."
Yuubou frowns, lowers the sword and his voice, "Come with me." Solemnly, the two walk out of the house. About a hundred yards later, Kibou realizes where his father is leading him, the Shinto Temple. Naturally, Kibou has been there many times for prayers, and outside of its shadows for swordplay. The quick-stepping father moves inside, Kibou slows and senses that there will be no praying today. Inside the entrance-way, Yuubou is talking with the guuji, and is then led by the priest to a darkened door, one Kibou has never seen opened before. Yuubou motions his son over as the priest pushes the door away on its hinges. Before entering, the man that Kibou has always known to be full of faith repeats the song that he always spoke before sword practice, "All is not lost, till hope is cast off."
The room is small and dark, save for a shaft of light from a lonely window that shines down onto something at the far end of the room. Kibou cannot make it out at first, but as his eyes adjust, the blur that shines comes more into focus. Man and son walk to it as Yuubou speaks, "This is your destiny. This is the extension of your soul."
Jerking his head to his father's smiling face, Kibou becomes uneasy, "What is this? What are you talking about?"
Yuubou wants to be as plain as possible in his explanation. "This 'ittou' was forged many, many years ago, and has been here, under the protection of the Guuji and other priests all that time. It will forever be here, safely hidden until it is needed, when the true warrior has come."
Kibou is unsure of his father, and is covered with puzzlement, "What are you saying, Father?"
Smiling, Yuubou continues explaining, detailing his quiet plan for his son, "For hundreds of years, after it was foretold that an evil force would show itself, in double, the means to defeat the horror was also pronounced. It was told, that a sword had to be fashioned in such a way, all that was not good would turn away from its sight. And that a great man would be born twenty years before the coming, 100 years after the first strike was put to the metal that is this sword." Yuubou, gleans and sways his arm out to the ittou. "And so, not by chance my son, that warrior is you!" Elated, Yuubou thinks of the day that his son will banish all evil, and the rejoicing that will follow.
"Kibou, Kibou!" A small boy runs past buyers and sellers in a crowded market, and down a busy road, "Kibou, Kibou!" He keeps going, knowing his destination and who will be there.
A dank shop on the periphery of a large market is nestled next to a larger storefront. It is shuttered still this morning, yet the boy runs to the door to fling it open, "Kibou, Kibou!" Darkness overwhelms his eyes, letting him run into a dark figure, its ominous presence taking away the boy's breath.
"What are you doing here?" the man sternly asks.
The shock on the frightened boy's face turns to delight, "Kibou, I've been looking for you!" Eyes adjusted, he clearly sees Kibou, standing tall before him.
Kibou shrugs his shoulders as he walks over to the shutters, then opening one side to let in what little light there is outside his store. "Onibito, you should be at home. Go there now." Trying to sound mad at the mischievous boy, Kibou puts his hands on his hips, and furrows his eyebrows.
"Kibou, I can't go home," he shakes his head wildly, "I have something important to tell you!"
A great sigh comes from Kibou, and he puts his palms down on a table. Kibou as always liked Onibito, so he tries to not become agitated, by setting up his work for the day.
Around the two are all sorts of baskets and tools, much of it piled up, covered in dust and inspiration. There are a few hats and everyday baskets that people may want, but Kibou likes to specialize in the odd sundry; items for decoration or of no apparent use at all. He enjoys the work, though at the end of the day, he has a pain inside him that has built up, all because of a bamboo sword.
"What can be so important..., in this village?" Kibou asks while walking around, picking up tools and bamboo.
If you will be still, I'll tell you!" Onibito pleads.
Kibou stops at his cluttered work table, and with a knife in his hand he points it at Onibito, "Is it raining in the valley again?"
"No, no..., I don't know! But this is really important!"
Shaking the knife, Kibou glares at his little pest, "All right, what is so important to make you miss playtime?" He tosses the knife back to the tabletop.
Onibito takes a deep breath and says slowly, "There are samurai coming." A moment of silence echoes between them, until it is broken, "A samurai warrior!"
Showing no emotion nor care, Kibou turns to his work and begins splitting bamboo.
Onibito will not leave him alone, "Kibou..., samurai! Don't you want to see them?" Onibito places his hands on the edge of table, lifting himself up on his toes.
Not one to stop, Kibou continues splitting bamboo, its cracking sounds dissolving into the recesses of the store. "I have seen samurai before. These will be no different."
Jumping up and down, the anxious boy pleads his case, "Sempu and Kishu say these samurai are magnificent warriors. One has even slayed a hundred men, ate dinner at the palace, and defeated a dragon in the mouth of Mount Fuji!"
*Note - I should work on this immediately. I love Japanese mythology, and this story will be a magical display of many a sword fights. Interesting too that I thought of the storyline before I ever heard that Tom Cruise was doing 'The Last Samurai.' I certainly was not influenced by that action.
UPDATE: My friend Landon Loud will be drawing this story as a graphic novel. Stay tuned!