Once upon a time, there was a young samurai who studied at a famous swordsmanship school. The institution, old and venerable, was renowned for all the great fighters it had trained throughout the years.
The boy, Kenichi, was a promising student, humble, patient and diligent. Everyday, he rose before dawn and worked hard, hoping that one day he would too mastered the art of the sword.
Under heavy rain or in smothering heat, he practiced and practiced, refining his moves and sharpening his mind to clear perfection.
For if Kenichi loved learning sparring techniques, he was also a good scholar. And above all, he had a great passion for go.
Every days, after diner, he would ask other students to join him for a game. And evenings would roll by in friendly competition of minds.
One night, as Kenichi was pondering on the best strategy to place his white stones, the light suddenly went out. He got up:
– Wind must have blow out the lamp. Give me a minute, I’ll relight it.
Feeling around in the dark, Kenichi found the lantern. But, when sparks of his lighter shone, he opened wide eyes. All the oil was gone.
– I must have forgotten to fill it up…
Kenichi took a pot and carefully poured fresh oil. He then lighted the wick.
– This should do the trick!
He and his friend went back to their game.
The light went out again.
Kenichi’s friend voice rose, hesitant, quivering:
– T-that’s no w-wind! Please t-tell me this is not a g-ghost!
Kenichi pressed a reassuring hand on his shoulder:
– Well, let’s find out!
The boys filled and lighted up the lantern once again and went to hide in the room’s big cupboard. They waited, holding their breaths.
Without warning, a dark silhouette emerged in the flickering light. Quiet as a shadow, a huge rat, longer than a man’s forearm, approached the lantern. Unafraid of fire, it raised on its hind legs and started lapping greedily at the oil.
Kenichi’s friend clenched his jaw and cursed:
– Damn beast!
And before Kenichi could hold him back, he sprang out the cupboard, wooden sword in hand.
The rat didn’t start or tremble. It got back on all fours, its red eyes glimmering in candlelight. Then, as if it stood alone in the room, it yawned.
Kenichi’s friend seethed:
– You are mocking me? Prepare to die!
And he jumped, sword ready to strike.
Swift as lightning, the rat dodged his blow and disappeared from his sight. Before the young samurai had realised, the animal had pounced back and nastily torn his right hand.
The poor boy cried in pain. Kenichi tried to defend him but the monstrous rat hissed viciously, baring sharp bloody teeth, eyes glowing like burning coals.
Hopefully, the commotion had been heard across the dormitory. As students and teachers arrived, the rat darted back in the shadows.
Kenichi did not sleep much that night. He kept thinking:
– This rat was so big. It must be a very strong beast, old and wise, to have survived this long. It is a monster, how could we get rid of it… oh!
The young fighter did not wait for dawn. He dressed up hastily and went to the city temple.
Monks were already up and tending to their daily chores. Kenichi bowed deeply and explained the late events.
– Please, let me borrow your cat. Only a skilled huntress like her could match this devil.
The monks shook their heads in disbelief. But Kenichi asked and asked again, always even, always gentle, and finally the monks agreed.
He returned to his school with the cat in his arms. She was a beautiful animal, calm and watchful. The boy related the whole story to her and, strangely, she seemed to soak up his every words.
Kenichi gently let the cat into his room and together, they waited for night to fall.
When darkness came, once again the huge rat appeared from the shadows. Bold and sure of its strength, it went to the lantern and started licking up the oil.
The cat did not move a whisker and only let a soft mewling. The rat froze and turned to her.
A long moment passed. None of the animals moved. They were staring at each other, without growling or hissing. The cat and the rat looked like living statues.
Kenichi did not even dared to breathe too loud and wondered:
– But, what are they doing?
Minutes after minutes, the two adversaries seized themselves, fangs and claws gleaming in the dim light.
Suddenly the rat pounced in a black fury. But swifter than any eyes could see, the cat punched it with a precise, stunning blow. And in a blink, she was at the monster’s throat.
In a matter of seconds, the rat was dead.
Kenichi was in awed. He petted the victorious cat and, as she purred, he whispered to himself:
– The one who lose its nerves is the one who makes a mistake and lose the battle, isn’t it… You would made an astonishing swordsman…
For years, Kenichi thought about this amazing fight. And he trained, and he practiced, refining his own techniques. Until one day, finally, he became renowned as a great sword master. The master of the path of the cat.
If you have ever come across a chanpara/ken geki (samurai movie such as Zatoichi) or manga/anime (like Rurouni Kenshin or Samurai Champloo – and many many shônen), you’ve probably recognized the rhythm of today’s duels. It has become a well known trope: a long wait building tension between foes, followed by a quick and violent fight.
The institution where our apprentice samurai studied is based on koryu, which were martial schools before Meiji era and, in a way, the ancestors of modern dojo. Sword training was called kenjutsu. Today, classical elements can be found in kendo (“way of the sword”) and iaido (art of drawing a sword and quickly respond to a sudden attack) practices.
In today’s tale, the young Kenichi embodies many qualities traditionally associated with samurai class and bushido code. He is hard working, composed, patient but also lettered. Even his past time, go, was a very classical pastime among fighter and noble classes.
For him, I have chosen a common Japanese boy name which can be written in many ways such as 研一 (“sharpen, study”+“one”)… or 剣一 (“sword”+”one”) 😉
Candles were very expensive so in everyday life, people prefered using oil lamps such as andon. Vegetal oil was not a very cheap product either so alternatives included lesser liked products… such as fish oil !