A respectful history of Ishikawa Goemon XIII

It is better to live life like Cherry Blossom:
a short but brilliant life dying only when you are the most brilliant.
Only a fool lets himself wilt.
---Tsung Tsu

"Like the cherry blossom which falls from the tree in its prime,
the samurai must have no regrets when his life is cut off."

My intention here is to correct an injustice: the surprising and inexplicable lack of Web presence of one of my favorite classic anime characters, the 20th-century samurai Ishikawa Goemon Daisansei, foe-turned-friend and long-time ally of master thief Arsene Lupin the Third.

Despite having taken part in Lupin's adventures from 1967 to the present day, and being well represented in other Lupin-related media, Ishikawa-san does not have the fan representation on the Internet that is warranted by his long history, let alone by his skill, nobility and beauty. Such skill as I have, therefore, I turn, with love and respect, to repairing this failure.


To begin: he is the 13th generation descendant of the legendary 16th century samurai-turned-bandit of the same name. Peter Epstad in his excellent history of Ninja films, on the Illuminated Lantern website, says this about Goemon I:

"He is mentioned among other places in a biography of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, written in 1642. The biography refers to him as a notorious bandit. Upon his capture [in 1594], he was boiled alive in a tub of oil. And such is the framework upon which story upon legend upon play upon movie have been hung. The legends began immediately. A common thread in the stories is that he stole from the rich, and the people loved him, like a Japanese Robin Hood. The story of Ishikawa Goemon was further elaborated in the popular Kabuki drama Romon Gosan-no kiri [the famous "47 Ronin"]...As the stature of this once simple bandit grew, so too did suggestions that he was in fact a trained ninja. And in these stories, his master was none other than Momochi Sandayu, founder of Iga style ninjutsu, and head of the southern ninja."

==Here we see the roots of Ishikawa-san's ties to both the Ishikawa family's samurai legacy and the ninja skills introduced to the line by his direct forefather Goemon I; his personal emotional pull between the nobility and dignity of the samurai and the stealth and banditry skills of the ninja is, I think, what originally drew him to the Lupin gang.

Though his family is documented, Ishikawa-san's own early history is lost in the shadows of time. By the time he makes his first appearance in the Lupin III anime series, he has already settled for himself his personal identity: although living in the 20th century, he intends to dress and comport himself as a traditional samurai, devoted to the sword and its discipline, although with a larcenous streak and a slight soft-heartedness he is never able to discard (manifested mainly in an inability to see through feminine wiles--indeed, to believe anyone is deliberately lying to him--and a fondness for silly pop music).

When Lupin comments, rather admiringly, that he's quite unusual for a modern Japanese young man, he replies thus: "Actually it's the opposite. I'm normal, it's other Japanese that are messed up. Instead of seeing the strength and greatness of the Japanese sword, they look to western weapons like rifles and pistols." Here we see his idealism and his candor, traits which are plain in him to this day. He is honest almost to a fault, and genuinely expects others to be the same, a lack of cynicism and suspicion which often gets him in trouble. He has several times walked away from Lupin when an outside report or newspaper article accused him of some crime, seemingly just because he can't believe that a published account could be untrue (--in episode #98, "When the Old Man Died", this action even causes Lupin to remark on Goemon's innocence and naivete.) It's an example of his will, I think, that he maintains such purity of vision despite keeping company with a worldly sophisticate like Lupin and a world-class cynic like Jigen, both of whom, I suspect, sometimes function as his litmus test for himself.

Ishikawa-san is also, as this glory-of-the-sword speech might tell you, already a skilled and highly-trained swordsman and assassin, specializing in iaido, the art of drawing the sword. This elegant discipline can be summarized thus:

"Iaido (ee-eye-doe), a derivative of Japanese Kenjutsu (swordsmanship techniques), is the study of drawing the sword, cutting, and returning it to its scabbard, all with a minimum of exertion. The essence of iaido, a non-combative discipline practiced for an individual's spiritual cultivation, is much different than its forerunner, Iaijutsu. Iaijutsu is also a sword-drawing art practiced with combative applications being stressed during training.-- Even though iaido kata actually consist of a single flowing motion, four stages can be distinguished: drawing the sword and delivering the first cut (nukitsuke), delivering the final cut (kiritsuke), cleaning the sword (chiburi--a quick snap that shakes off the blood), and returning the sword to its scabbard (noto). The kata begin with a sheathed sword. In reaction to an attack by one or more imaginary adversaries the sword is drawn and the plot is converted into a lightning fast counterattack. When the danger is over, the sword is resheathed in a prescribed fashion, and the iaido-ka returns to his position of departure in total concentration and vigilance."
....Darrell Craig, IAI --The Art of Drawing the Sword

Anyone who observes Ishikawa-san's practice of this art in the anime cannot help but be struck by the care taken by the animators to respect it, especially the precise and ritualized moment of sheathing the blade, which is always performed in perfect stillness and solemnity regardless of what havoc may surround it.

Though it was presumably from Jinen, his master in Iga, that he received his training in iaido, he received his schooling in the skills of assassination from one Momochi no Jijii ("Old Man Momochi") , a notorious figure in world crime circles. It is both instructive and amusing to remember that his infamous ancestor is also said to have been schooled by a Momochi, and that Goemon's--if we may lapse into the overly-familiar fan convention of referring to him by his given name--sensei is doubtless intended as a direct descendant, by teaching if not actual bloodline, to this famed ninja master. (Relationships and rivalries based on familial descent are such a fixation in the Lupin series as to amount to a minor obsession...) This is further underlined by "Goemon's Revenge" (Goemon no Fukushuu), a 1978 episode in which he returns to Iga after a ten years' absence to find a dying Jinen, who tells him that another disciple has stolen Jinen's treasure--the Scrolls of the Iga Ninja.

The other thing of note in his debut appearance (the 1971 episode "Enter Goemon the Thirteenth") is that he is already in possession of his chief treasure, the awe-inspiring metal-cutting katana Zantetsuken, referred to most tenderly as "my one and only beloved sword". Though several versions of its origin have been told over the years, they essentially say the same thing: Zantetsuken was forged either from an amalgam of blades created by three great masters (Kotetsu, Yoshikane, and the immortal Masamune), or by using the combined secret techniques of those masters, plus the unearthly addition of iron from a fallen meteor. Despite the coolness factor, it may well be the meteor iron which gives Zantetsuken--the name literally means "cuts-iron-sword"--its unfortunate and sometimes heartbreaking brittleness.

[For more detail on the history of Zantetsuken, please proceed to A Respectful History of Ishikawa Goemon XIII, Part 2: Zantetsuken and the scrolls.]

When introduced (series 1 episode 5), Ishikawa-san's purpose was to assassinate Lupin III, under orders from Momochi. He did not know that Momochi was in league with Lupin's sometime rival/sometime girlfriend Mine Fujiko, and that his plan was to have Goemon--who he mistrusted as his most gifted student--and Lupin kill each other, leaving him the greatest thief on earth. When Goemon learned he had been betrayed by his master, he left his tutelage and operated for a brief while on his own. In series 1 episode 7 he is teaching trainees in the martial arts and by episode 8 he has abandoned that to join Lupin's association. Although he remains an enigma to them, and comes and goes as he pleases, this will remain his primary allegiance for the next 30+ years and counting.

In series 2 episode 36, "Secret of Tsukikage Castle" (Tsukikagejoo no Himitsu o Abake), Goemon has enough standing in the team to request a heist on his own behalf, namely to acquire the famous sword Tsukikage-maru, jewel of the castle's famous treasure. (All the gold escapes them, but Goemon does get Tsukikage-maru.) in episodes #55-6, Goemon is tricked into joining a rival gang and betraying Lupin: he offers his life to Lupin when he realizes the truth, but Lupin sensibly insists they settle their differences by a fistfight instead of with gun and sword, leaving them both battered but still alive. By the time of the harrowing second series episode #112, "Goemon's Close Call" (Goemon Kikiippatsu), Goemon's loyalty to Lupin is so strong that he withstands the most grueling torture rather than give any information on him to rivals. (Lupin and Jigen's rescue of him from the torturer's den is a very moving sequence.)

Much more episode material to come....


Go on to my Lupin III movie/TV special/OVA reviews, site in progress.


Want to link to my site? Domo arigatou! Feel free to copy a button!


Some Worthwhile Lupin III/Ishikawa links:

The Lupin Encyclopedia, a priceless resource.

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