Circa 1155, Musashibo Benkei was born to a temple shrine overseer and the daughter of a blacksmith. That is to say, the legends explain that he was born to such a couple; other legends depict him as the offspring of a demon and ogre. Whatever the case, his self and his fictionalized self became popular in Japanese folklore and romanticized history. By the age of seventeen, Benkei was supposedly a monster of 6′7″ – a size still gigantic for people today, let alone the smaller versions of ourselves that existed in the 12th century.
Benkei trained as a novice in a Buddhist monastery, which meant that he also received military training. His weapon of choice was the naginata, a kind of poleaxe or glaive that were superbly effective at unhorsing mounted riders and forcing combat over a wider area. Because of the naginata’s effective range, Japanese armor began to employ greaves – iron plates sewed inside cloth coverings for the knees and legs – to prevent quick disabling of soldiers in the field.
At some point, Benkei decided to become a wandering holy man following the path of shugendo, a search for mystical powers and occult knowledge via abstinence from the world. His travels eventually took him to Kyoto where he settled himself as the gatekeeper of the Gojo Bridge, one of the passageways over the Kamo River. Surely the passerby could not have been happy, as his method of gatekeeping was to rob and disarm everyone that passed by. Benkei was a decidedly successful highwayman, eventually accumulating 999 swords and a spotless track record… until his reputation caught the eye of Ushiwakamaru, a military strategist descended from the powerful Minamoto samurai family.
After traversing to Kyoto to check out the brigand, Ushiwakamaru – the childhood name of Minamoto Yoshitsune – ended up fighting a duel with Benkei. Unfortunately for Benkei, his intended 1000th victim was a greater fighter. In return for preserving his own life, Benkei pledged his everlasting loyalty to Yoshitsune. For the next few years, Yoshitsune and Benkei traveled Japan fighting in Minamoto familial wars with Yoshitsune’s brother Yoritomo against the powerful Taira clan. As a strategist, Yoshitsune shone and in 1184, helped the Minamoto clan win a famous victory at the Battle of Ichi-no-tani. The Taira clan had setup a base on Hiyodori slope, which would have necessitated an uphill battle for the Minamotos. However, Yoshitsune’s army instead climbed up the back slope and attacked from higher up, their cavalry running downhill and slaughtering the enemy in their camp.
Benkei and Yoshitsune fighting at Gojo Bridge.
The victory at Hiyodori was a turning point for the brothers Minamoto. While vying for power, Yoritomo declared Yoshitsune a traitor and sent both his brother and Benkei running for their lives to northern Japan, where they found respite with the Fujiwara clan. For 2 years, Yoshitsune served as general in the Fujiwara’s fight against Yoritomo, a shrewd appointment made by Fujiwara Hidehira, the clan leader. However, upon Hidehira’s death, his successor Yasuhira – with pressure from Yoritomo – declared Yoshitsune traitor and hounded him to his remaining castle, Koromogawa no tate, at the Koromo River.
This was Benkei’s finest hour. On June 5, 1189, Yasuhira led a force of 500 soldiers towards the keep where Yoshitsune and Benkei were holed up. Yoshitsune sat in an inner room, katana in hand, and prepared for his death by seppuku. Meanwhile, on the bridge to the keep, Benkei prepared to make his last stand, defending his lord unto his last breath. A ferocious fight ensued, an assuredly violent scene that made it into popular Kabuki plays, a Akira Kurosawa film and numerous anime/manga/videogame/card game series in Japan and elsewhere. When the dust cleared, Benkei was allegedly found standing covered in arrow and blade wounds. Around him lay 300 corpses. Curious and fearful, the remaining soldiers poked and prodded him before realizing that Benkei was actually dead, and still standing.
Benkei no Tachi Ojo: the standing death of Benkei.