Miminashi Ho-ichi, Retold in Low Style
Owen Bender Mrs. Shaltanis Rhetoric 1: Section 2 March 15, 2022 Set to appear in May 2022 edition
There are two parts to a good storytelling. It’s one part a good story, and one part a good telling. In fact, in feudal Japan there was a storyteller so skilled that he could mostly stick to the same old story. The history of the Heike clan was a story any audience of his would have heard before, but when he told it, it was different.
His name was Ho-ichi. When he sat down in front of an audience, he strummed his stringed biwa-twannnng-and they all fell silent. He began his tale, and they listened.
Ho-ichi may have been blind, but he could describe things like he’d been there himself. The listeners could see the leader’s smug smile when he told of the Heike’s rise to power. They could hear his victims’ cries as the leader ruled with cruelty and an iron fist. They could feel the warriors’ wounds in the naval battle of Dan-no-ura where countless Heike fell to the sea.
One evening, Ho-ichi was sitting outside a Shinto temple. (The priest was a close friend of his.) Rather suddenly, his quiet was interrupted. First, footsteps on gravel-crunch, crunch, crunch. Then, a voice-“Storyteller!”
And Ho-ichi: “Who calls me? I can’t see.”
The voice: “I am a samurai, speaking for my lord. He is visiting the area and has heard of your skill. He wishes you to come and perform for him. Hold out your hand, so I can lead you to him.”
Ho-ichi obeys. (I mean, you’re summoned by a high-ranking daimyo; what else are you gonna do?) The samurai grabs his hand and off he runs. They go a while, turning left, right, left, shallow left, hard right-Ho-ichi can’t keep track of where they are. Then they stop. He hears a clack-clack-clack-clack-clack of many footsteps on wooden floors that shift to a softer thump, thump, thump, on dirt. He thinks, Oh, I’m to perform in some sort of courtyard outside wherever the daimyo and his traveling party are staying. A new voice comes: “Ah, here is the storyteller. Whenever you are ready, we would like to hear your rendition of the tale of the Heike.”
Ho-ichi bows. “I am honored, my lord, but the story you wish to hear is fairly long and it’s getting late. If you are to sleep well, it will take around three nights to tell fully.”
The lord says, “This is acceptable. I will send my guard to retrieve you tomorrow night and the next so you can finish.”
So Ho-ichi begins, and it goes well. No, it goes very well. He’s never had an audience who loved the story so much. He stops about a third of the way through, bows, gets an enthusiastic applause, and the samurai takes him home. But before he walks inside, the samurai stops him.
“Teller, you’re good at what you do, but my master’s reputation is important. He would rather you not mention that he came all this way just to hear you tell a story.” Ho-ichi agrees to stay quiet. So when his friend the priest approaches him with, “Ho-ichi, where were you? I couldn’t find you anywhere,” his answer is, “Oh, I needed to stretch my legs and went for a walk,” and he heads off to bed.
The Shinto priest isn’t satisfied. He calls in his servant: “Ho-ichi is being unusually evasive, and he has me worried. Tomorrow evening, you hide behind the bush out back and see where he goes.” So another day passes, and Ho-ichi goes to sit outside. The servant watches, waits, watches-he sees nothing at all. Then, suddenly, Ho-ichi holds his hand. He gets up, and off he runs. By the time the servant gets out of his uncomfortable hiding place, he’s long gone.
The priest hears about this, and now he’s worried even more. Ho-ichi comes back safe a while later, that’s good-so the third night, the servant’s there again, but ready to go at a moment’s notice. Again, Ho-ichi holds out his hand, gets up, runs off-and the servant follows. Left, right, left, shallow left, hard right-then Ho-ichi stops. He tunes his biwa, and sits down on the shore in front of the big stone memorial for those who died in the battle of Dan-no-ura. Bones begin to wash up with the waves, then-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-they assemble themselves into complete skeletons that-thump, thump, thump-walk towards Ho-ichi.
The servant runs up, grabs Ho-ichi by the arm-“Get outta here, old man, you finish that story they’re gonna kill ya!” He pulls him up, runs all the way back to the temple, drags Ho-ichi inside, and tells everything to the priest.
Now the priest knows what’s going on, he says, “Ho-ichi, we can’t get you far enough away from here that the ghost won’t find you, but we can make it look like we did. Take off your clothes, and you”-he hands the servant a scroll-“paint these runes all over his body, leaving no part uncovered. Ho-ichi, this spell will make what it’s written on completely invisible to the spirits, but only as long as you stay completely still.”
Ho-ichi does what he’s told. The servant paints his feet, paints up his legs, his torso his arms, his face-“Okay! Okay! I’m done! I’m done!”
The cold wind blows across the yard, but Ho-ichi doesn’t move. Inside, the priest paces and wrings his hands, worrying about his friend, but Ho-ichi doesn’t move. In his room with all the doors and windows locked, the servant is shaking with fear-“Forget that old spinster, what about me?!”-but Ho-ichi…well, the ghost isn’t here yet so he turns ’round for a second-“Will you shut up! And I’m not old!”-then he goes back to the whole staying-completely-still thing.
Good timing, too, because…
Crunch, crunch, crunch. “Storyteller!”
The warrior looks around. “Storyteller!”
He gets so close that Ho-ichi can feel his breath on his face. He can’t see me. He can’t see me. He can’t see me. He can’t see anything since the servant painted every part of my body… except he didn’t.
The samurai: “What are these ears doing here in the air? Ah well, I’ll bring ’em back to the emperor, he’ll know what to make of this.”
The samurai grabs his ears.
Pulls again, confused.
Riiiiiipps Ho-ichi’s ears right off his head! Searing, fiery pain! Blood flowing down his face! His heart beating like a drum! But Ho-ichi. Doesn’t. MOVE.
And the ghost of a samurai walked away, carrying a pair of bloody ears. Never heard from again.
Whenever Ho-ichi sits down in front of an audience, there’s always that one little kid with no manners to perk up with, “What happened to your ears??” When that happens, he strums his stringed biwa-twannnng-and they all fall silent. He begins his tale, and they listen.