*This piece is the origin story of the main character, Jurou Takao: better known as the Ronin Shishio. His story is that of triumph, betrayal, loss, and dishonor done upon him by the very family and clan he fought for during the Sengoku (Warring States) Era in Feudal Japan. Witness the rise, fall, and start of a tragic hero who seeks redemption and vengeance against familial tyranny.*
In the fall of 1600, there was one battle that decided the ultimate fate of all Japan, the Battle of Sekigahara.
Leading the Eastern armies was Ieyasu Tokugawa, all stout and ready with a spear in hand and sword at his side. Once a loyal retainer to the late great Nobunaga Oda, and succeeding the last unifier, Hideyoshi Toytomi, the future of all Japan rested on his shoulders. It was there, near his position of power at the capital of Kyoto, he looked far and wide at where his enemy stood. In Sekigahara, the traitor, Mitsunari Ishida waited and anticipated for the great daimyo to make his move.
What he did not expect, however, was that Lord Ieyasu had one clan at the front lines, which was his ultimate line of offense.
This was the clan Takao. All clad in dark crimson and brown, they were regarded as one of the strongest fighters to come from the northwestern part of Japan, nearly bordering the edge of Echigo, once the former domain of the legendary daimyo, Kenshin Uesugi. And there, standing at the front of his fellow samurai, was Jurou Takao. The tenth-born son, standing tall at five foot eleven, muscles toned and defined, hair unkempt and wild as a lion’s mane. Unlike his contemporaries wearing their traditional armor, his garments consisted of a ragged haori of deep red and a tattered brown hakama nearly shredded and torn at the heels. At his side, he held his favorite weapon. A tachi of tattered and humble make with a deep red cord-wrapped hilt, a square iron guard, and a long, curved blade nearly wide as his mighty hands.
A smile came across his bearded face when one of his five elder brothers, Ichiro, gave the command to attack. As soon as the first line of enemy troops stepped up, they were quickly met with a swift and heavy cleave of Jurou’s mighty blade, which he held flawlessly with one hand. Everyone around, enemy and ally, would all agree to one thing. Seeing this strong yet unruly man take on massive hordes of soldiers was a sight and horror to behold, especially when one saw him grinning from ear to ear in the heat of battle. His boisterous, hearty laugh was enough to shake the ground under them, sounding like the roar of a lion.
The overwhelming power of the young Takao turned the Ishida’s forces away. In their panicked state, they did not anticipate running into the factions led by Lord Kobayakawa, who quickly turned against the West to join Ieyasu’s Eastern Army. It was this sudden turn of events, and thanks to the persistent charge from the Takao clan, that turned the tide. Soon after, Ishida’s whole army was quickly subdued, and the battle had come to an end. And with the battle’s end came the end of the Warring States. At that moment, the younger vassals of the Takao clan surrounded their burly commander, cheering him with a new name:
“SHISHIO! SHISHIO! SHISHIO!”
A fierce and endearing name that glorified Jurou’s pride, strength, and tenacity. Jurou did not think much of it, but it lighted his heart when he heard his youngest sister, Shun, cheering him with that name. It inspired him so, he had a tattoo with the impression of a fierce, prideful lion etched onto his back.
As most of the clan cheered Jurou on, they did not once acknowledge or cheer any of the five elder brothers and leaders of the clan, whose faces expressed feelings of disdain and envy.
As the new era began, the Takao clan returned to their homeland of Shinano Province, bordering south of Echigo. At this time, it was decreed by Hidetada Tokugawa, now reigning as Shogun in the capital of Edo while his father Ieyasu still held significant power, that most of the remaining clans would be stripped of their samurai status, leaving most of them without title or reverence. Those who could not find any other purpose in life than by the way of the sword became Ronin. The Takao, unfortunately, were afflicted by this sudden decree. But luckily for them, they retained ownership of their domain. A small consolation for their effort in the Battle of Sekigahara.
While the likes of Jurou, now known as Shishio, and the rest of the clan remained adjusted to their new life as Ronin, free to wander about the province and beyond, seeking potential opponents through dueling, his older brothers and superiors did not. There they sat in what remained of their once fortified stronghold in the center of Shinano, all weary and bitter.
At the center sat the elder and appointed leader of the Takao, Ichiro. His countenance spoke of a man of power, influence, and tenacity. A tenacity that was enough to rival that of Jurou. His furrowed and stern brow was shadowed by his thick, wild locks of hair and unshaven stubble.
At his right sat the second in command, Jiro. A man who was seen more as an intimidating demon among his peers and contemporaries. Anyone who had ever stood beside or even around him always remarked the feeling of tension and uneasiness after staring deep into his piercing, pale eyes. He, like Ichiro, had thick locks that were often kept tied in a traditional knot.
To Jiro’s right sat Saburo; third in line, but all the vainer and more self-centered among them. His only concern during these times was keeping his self-imposed beauty to mere perfection, or as close as anyone could get.
To the left of Ichiro sat the fourth elder, Daishiro. Claiming to be of Buddhist faith, with most of his hair shaved, fidgeting with his prized juzu beads of jade, he had still lacked one component of Buddhism; the ability and will to let go of all earthly possessions. This imperfection was something Daishiro was too proud and stubborn to acknowledge, for the things he prized and treasured most were useless jewelry such as his jade rosary and precious bracelets and chains of gold and silver.
And the last brother to farther left of the room kept farther than an arm’s length away from the others was Gorou, all sickly and frail. With his sunken eyes and sharp cheekbones, he looked more skeleton than man. While not physically imposing or capable as the rest of his brothers, Gorou often made use of his abilities in stealth and makeshift poisons to conquer his enemies.
All of them together were known as the Takao Five. Once were they the most revered and skilled fighters from the north, now they were nothing more than an empty shell of their former glory, robbed of their title and status in the new era. Bitterness and frustration fueled their being until Ichiro held his head high and said, “My dear brothers. Know that I, like you, share in your sentiment and feeling toward the new world order laid down upon this land. Back then, if not for us, we would still be trapped in an era filled with death and misery. And look what they have done for us in return!”
Ichiro huffed and frothed at the mouth while he spoke of the travesties that fell upon him and his brothers. After he collected himself, he reached deep into his robes and pulled out a scroll of parchment, laying it down in the center of the council and rolling it out to reveal the characters that spelled out “Tenka Goken”.
“This, my brothers,” said Ichiro with conviction and tenacious fervor, “is our answer to this mockery of an age! With these, we shall regain our honor, and glory, and lead this land into a much greater era ruled by us!”
“But there is one problem, Lord Ichiro,” Gorou spoke with a murderous cough. “It would not take long for the shogunate to see what we are doing. How are we supposed to go unnoticed to achieve this goal?”
Ichiro looked at his ailing brother and smiled a villain’s twisted grin, and he said, “I have just the solution for that!”
Meanwhile, in the Echigo Province north of Shinano, Shishio and his small band of followers traveled to this particular province to pay respects to one of the greatest samurai that ever lived during the past era; Kenshin Uesugi, the God of War, and the Dragon of Echigo. Shishio owed it all to this once great and mighty warrior, for it was Uesugi who influenced his outlook and dedication to the art of the sword and the ways of combat. Ever since he was young, the young Shishio remembered watching one of the battles Lord Uesugi partook in, especially ones against his long-time rival, Shingen Takeda of Kai Province. To see them fight with honor and respect, and not with a single ounce of disgrace or pettiness between them fueled the young aspiring Shishio to develop his skills to the highest degree, wanting to stand among the greatest.
But now that the era of war has come and gone, and the great warrior Kenshin has passed into the realm of history and legend, all Shishio could do now was honor him by hosting a myriad of duels between himself and his loyal followers, and especially towards those who pass by to sneer and mock them for being foolish. More times than not, it was Shishio who always came out on top after every match. Despite this, he never once let the victories go to his head or look down on anyone who couldn’t match his strength and prowess. His hearty, roaring laugh echoed throughout the province and filled his men’s spirits with the same vigor and fire that burned within him.
When the festive fighting was done, the unruly yet honorable Shishio paid his respects to the fallen lord of Echigo by pouring out a generous portion of sake from his huge, black lacquered gourd on the soil of the land. His men, too, and even Shun followed his example and gave what offerings they had on their person in honor and recognition of a long-gone age.
Their celebration and reminiscence came to a sudden end when Shishio heard one of his men call for him.
“My lord!” yelled one of his followers.
“Easy, brother, easy,” Shishio said calmly as he offered him a sip from his gourd. “Why the urgency?”
“I bring news,” the young follower panted, “from the Five, back in Shinano! They requested immediate audience with you, brother Shishio!”
Shishio huffed at the mention of his five older brothers, thinking it strange that they would request his presence of all others. Ever since the new era started, the Five had not once acknowledged his presence or looked to him as a brother. And now to hear that they show any interest in seeing him stirred skeptical thoughts in his mind. His little sister, Shun, walked up to him, and whispered, “What could our brothers want at this time?”
“I do not know,” Shishio replied with a steely look about him. “But we shall humor them. Come! We live for Shinano!”
And then, Shishio and his band of Ronin mounted their steeds and rode their way south, back to their home of Shinano.
Shishio and his band of ronin came up to their old home of Takao Manor. Their arrival was greeted with less welcome and more of a passing acknowledgment as if they were mere commoners. While sister Shun and the rest of the ronin were accommodated in the main hall, Shishio was escorted to the very back of the manor, where his elder brothers sat and waited for him. As he stepped into the room, the sickly Gorou slipped a drop from one of his poisons into the sixth cup of chilled sake. The unruly Shishio sat himself down, taking the last cup brought to him by a manservant. Before he could take a sip, Ichiro looked at him with a steely gaze, and he said, “It has been too long, little brother. I am glad you decided to accept our invitation—”
“Spare me,” Shishio huffed. “Ever since Sekigahara, you have not looked at me as a brother. Why call upon me now?”
“You see,” said Ichiro while keeping his gaze steeled like the sword at his side, “we have been thinking. As a clan, it is in our best interests to move ahead with the new era. And we think that, like before, you have helped bring us to this point. Now, we ask you for your service once again.”
“What’s in it for me, exactly?” Shishio asked suspiciously.
Ichiro and the other brothers chuckled amongst themselves. The lead elder resorted back to his straight gaze, and replied, “Quite a lot. You help us one last time, and you shall be given a more prominent place among the clan. One that would make you a legend, more so than ever before in the history of our great home! What say you, little brother?”
Feeling uncertain, and not concerned with the feeling of notoriety, Shishio could only think of what was best for his small clan, especially his precious little sister. So, with a reluctant nod, the ronin accepted and took a long sip from his cup. In that instant, Shishio began to feel a strange, burning pain deep in his stomach, which later shot up into his head. As he writhed in agonizing pain, the Five quickly slipped out of the room and disappeared without a trace.
Sometime later, Shishio woke to find himself in a daze. His head throbbing and burning with fury. Most of his sight slowly came back, finding himself surrounded by the most gruesome sight he ever saw. Aside from his hands drenched in blood, there were rows of bodies, all bloodied and torn apart as if it were done by a pack of wild animals. The most shocking above all was finding the lifeless body of Shun that was sprawled out near the entrance of the manor, with Shishio’s tachi sticking out from her chest. Shishio’s mind started to break as he dropped down to his knees, his roar echoing out from the manor and out into the surrounding territory.
After holding Shun’s body close to his, the mournful ronin pulled his sword out from his sister’s chest. Just as he was about to end his life with shame heavy on his mind, the ronin’s blade grew hotter to the touch. He threw it to the ground, grasping at his burning hands. His eyes then turned to the manor entrance where he spotted a most peculiar creature. A red-furred vixen with blotches of grey on its muzzle, eyes, legs, and the tip of its not one, but five tails. Its amber eyes stared him down. Then, out of nowhere, he heard a soft, yet fiery voice sound in his ears.
“Before you strike yourself down, please listen to what my lady has to say.”
“W-What?!” Shishio exclaimed as he backed up against the wall with fear. “Who or what are you?! And what do you want with me?!”
The fox stepped forward, revealing a small trinket hanging from its neck. It was a dazzling crystal pendant hanging from a necklace of black rosary beads. The shape of the crystal resembled that of a half-drawn circle with intricate carvings. A celestial light shined from the crystal, projecting the shape of a woman with fox ears atop her head and adorning the red and white garb of a shrine maiden.
“Hello, Jurou Takao,” said the celestial woman. “Or do you prefer Shishio?”
Shishio could not find the words, being dumbfounded at the radiant appearance before him.
“I am Inari, Kami of prosperity,” said the celestial woman. “I have seen the tragedy that fell upon you. But what you must know is this. You, like your fallen brethren, were but pawns in the scheme made up by your former superiors, the Takao Five. To enact their devious plan to overthrow the shogun, they had to be rid of the one person that could stop them. You, Shishio. With blood on your hands, it gives them the advantage they need.”
“In order to overthrow the empire,” Inari went on, displaying impressions of what looked like five swords, “they need the most prized and powerful of swords every age has ever seen. The Tenka Goken. Five swords of incredible strength and power. With these in the wrong hands, it could send the entirety of Japan not to an age of war, but to one of chaos and disorder.”
Shishio gritted his teeth with anger, sadness, and frustration, and he yelled, “Why should I care? What has this got to do with me?! Just leave me be!”
The celestial Inari was not stirred by the ronin’s explosive temper, and she went on with the same calming tone.
“Now that you know of your brothers’ deception and betrayal, it is time for you to take the fight to them,” she said. “You must seek out the swords before they do. Label them as the true traitors, and free yourself from the shame and dishonor of murdering those dear to you. What say you then, young Ronin?”
Shishio looked to Lady Inari and then at the bodies of his fallen Ronin and dear sister. He took up his sword again, shaking the blood off from the blade, and sheathed it at his side, giving a slight nod, and accepted this task. But before he could move on, he requested to bury the bodies. His request was granted. After the burial, he took Shun’s prized yellow wakizashi and nestled it in the loop of his belt below his tachi. And as he set off, Inari spoke to him for one last time.
“One more thing,” said the celestial Kami. “To make sure you do not lose your way, I am sending my trusted vassal, Akari, along with you. She and her crystal shall help guide the way to the locations of each sword. Good luck, dear Ronin, and may your honor be redeemed!”
Inari vanished as the celestial light from the crystal dimmed back to its usual black hue. Shishio then took one long gulp from his gourd and started his way, following the red, five-tailed vixen Akari, and she remarked wittingly, “Face it. Without me, you would be going in circles ten times over.”
The unruly Ronin huffed impatiently as he and the five-tailed vixen walked further in the direction of the rising sun.