Friday, 12 November 2010

The Army beneath the Waves

We’re showing two prints in the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery which commemorate the battle of Dan-no-ura from 1185. This legend is part historical fact, part myth and part ghost story. Interestingly, it is also the subject of a debate about the laws of natural, (or unnatural) selection.

The sea battle was the culmination of a war that would decide who ruled Japan for the next seven hundred years. Two opposing factions, the Minamoto and the Taira (Heike) clans faced each other in fleets off the coast of Japan on April the 25th, 1185. The Taira had with them the seven year old Emperor and his family; the Minamoto were led by the legendary warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune. The turning point in the ferocious battle came when a senior Taira general defected to the Minamoto and identified the ship containing the child Emperor Antoku and his family. The Minamoto archers turned their arrows on the flagship, sending it out of control. As the battle turned against them, sensing defeat, Antoku and his grandmother jumped to their deaths saying, "in the depths of the ocean we have a capital;" followed shortly by their loyal Taira samurai.

The Taira threw the crown jewels overboard with them. The royal sword was never recovered. At the close of the engagement, the warrior Taira Norimori placed a heavy anchor on his armour and followed the rest into the sea. Norimori, clutching the anchor is a popular and enduring image of this encounter.

The defeat signaled the end of the Empire and the imposition of the Shogunate until 1868 when the Meiji Emperor was restored, though the child-emperor beneath the waves has continued to be revered up to the present day.

It is said that the Taira ghosts still haunt the sea and the site of the battle is host to a particular species of crab, the Heike crab, named after the old royal family. As you’ll see from the picture, the shells of these crabs bear an uncanny resemblance to the face of a Samurai warrior. We’ve put in a link to a video by Carl Sagan that nicely proposes that the crabs have developed this startling look through human selection... in other words, since the most visible ‘Samurai’ crabs are thrown back into the sea through fear of the Taira ghosts, it is these mutations that get to prosper.

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