Book Review: Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa

Miyamoto Musashi is one of history's greatest and most famous warriors. In Japan, his name is legendary- he is remembered as one of the only undefeated swordsmen in history, as well as an exemplar of virtue, discipline, and martial prowess. His dedication to the Way of the Sword was total and absolute, and he was the progenitor of the dual-sword combat style known as Niten Ichi-ryu. His greatest and most well-known written work, The Book of Five Rings, is often spoken of in the same breath as Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Unsurprisingly, a great deal of historical literature has sprung up around him since his death in 1645- including this particular novel, which I gather is considered to be Japan's literary equivalent of Gone With the Wind.

Musashi tells a fictionalised version of the life story of Miyamoto Musashi, starting with the aftermath of the pivotal Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, which conclusively established the dominance of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan and set the stage for over 250 years of feudal society. It ends with his greatest and most difficult duel with Sasaki Kojiro, another great swordsman of the age, with many diversions and digressions between these two endpoints.

Reading this book was something of a personal achievement for me, actually. I first laid eyes on this book as a giant paperback lying on my father's TV stand as an eight-year-old. That cover illustration, with its imposing picture of a legendary figure wielding two swords with absolute mastery, has stayed with me for more than twenty years. I'd always wanted to read this novel, and finally, this year, I did.

There is a lot going for this novel, even though the start of the book is thoroughly muddled. It begins with the story of Takezo Shinmen, a foot-soldier in the battle, and his friend Matahachi. Both of them get involved in a scuffle in a nearby village which ends with Takezo killing several bandits, one of whom appears to be related to the old matriarch of the village. Swearing revenge for the deaths of her kin, the matriarch vows to pursue Takezo for the rest of her life to bring him to justice. Takezo is captured by a half-legendary Buddhist monk named Takuan (he actually existed, but whether or not he actually played any part in Musashi's education is unknown). After some training in the school of hard knocks, Takezo renames himself Musashi (in Chinese kanji, the two words have the same basic characters), and changes his last name to that of his home village. He dedicates himself completely and totally to the Way of the Sword, swearing to himself that he will do whatever it takes to master himself and his weapon completely.

The book follows Musashi throughout the fifteen years or so of his career, as he journeys throughout Japan as a ronin (a samurai without a daimyo- a feudal lord). The best parts of the book concern Musashi's awesome skill with the sword, and his triumphs and failures along his lifelong path to enlightenment. His greatest duels are brought to life with real skill and vivacity; for instance, it is well known that Musashi would routinely challenge the heads of the greatest and most famous schools of swordsmanship in Japan, and he never, ever lost. His dismantling of the Yoshioka School is presented in epic fashion in this book (over the course of at least 100 pages, with considerable digressions in between). He strikes and cripples the head of the school in his first duel with the Yoshioka students; then he strikes and defeats that man's brother in his next duel; finally, facing an overwhelming hidden assault force made up of the entire school's remaining students, Musashi resorts for the first time in his life to a two-sword style, using his katana and wakizashi (short sword) almost completely on instinct and to absolutely devastating effect. And that is but one of several great action set-pieces throughout this book.

There are other aspects of Musashi's story to read and enjoy as well. Throughout his initial years of study and solitude, Musashi is constantly assailed by doubts about his prowess in swordsmanship. The fictional Musashi in this book realises quickly that the Way of the Sword is about far more than mere training with the blade; it is about total mastery of oneself. (This was also true of the historical Musashi, who, along with being possibly the greatest swordsman in history, was also an accomplished painter, writer, and poet.) For instance, there is a scene late in the book in which Musashi tries to till land on the outskirts of a small village, attempting to impose his will on the land instead of letting the land teach him how best to arrange its contours for irrigation and efficient planting. When a massive flood comes through and nearly kills him, Musashi learns his lesson very quickly and proceeds to teach the villagers exactly how to till their own crops more efficiently. To Musashi, the Way of the Sword was his path to enlightenment, and there is actually surprisingly little time spent (relatively speaking) on his swordsmanship, with rather a lot more time devoted to attempting to tell the story of the man's journey instead.

Despite these many positives, however, I would warn most potential readers to stay away from this book.

To be honest, this is one of the most difficult books I've read this year- and not because of the quality of the translation, which is phenomenal. I have a pretty good understanding of both Japanese language and culture (at least, for someone who's never actually been there, anyway), so I have some idea of how difficult it must have been to translate a highly structured, extremely logical language like Japanese into a flowing and flowery novel of English literature like this one. The language is not what makes this book difficult- it is the plot and the story.

The biggest problem with this book, by miles, is the fact that it never seems to go anywhere. Musashi's story, if told by itself from this book, would fill maybe 300 pages. The book is nearly 900 pages long- and that's the abridged and edited version. The reason there is so much filler is because of all of the incidental people in Musashi's life, who all get their own side stories.

Here's one good example of the filler that pads out this book. Early in his life, Musashi and Matahachi's fiance, Otsu, fall madly in love with each other, but of course because Musashi is studying to be the best swordsman of all time, he has no time for women in his life. The entire damn book becomes one long, very irritating chase sequence in which Otsu gets so very close to catching up to Musashi but never quite gets there. On the rare occasions when she finally does catch up to him, since she's a thoroughly irrational woman, she wants him to be completely virtuous and gets quite terrified when it looks like Musashi is about to give in to his desire and take her. Throughout the whole book she pines for him, idealising him and never doubting in him- but the moment she is actually in her presence she becomes shy and cold, right up to the end of the book. It's infuriating to read because nothing ever happens other than her crying a lot. She's like the really annoying damsel in distress in those ancient fairy-tales who never stops being in distress, despite being described (repeatedly) as a woman of otherworldly, ethereal beauty in this book. Ironically, she's put on a ridiculous pedestal in the book, yet she puts Musashi on an even higher pedestal. It's just downright bizarre to read.

By the way, there's rather a lot of crying in this book. I'm not sure whether it's the translation or the source material at fault here. Basically every single major character in the book, except for Musashi himself, seems to "burst into tears" every other page. It's rather jarring and quite unnecessary given that this is a book written about a legendary warrior and his quest for absolute perfection. This isn't a modern chick-lit novel in which unrealistically beautiful women agonise over how horribly difficult their super-privileged lives are and whether to choose the hot-but-dangerous-guitarist or the hot-but-boring-businessman (both of whom have inexplicably giant members), it's a book about one of the greatest warriors of all time, and yet it doesn't read that way. Le Morte d'Arthur, this is NOT.

Also, there are a lot of secondary characters. Throughout the book Musashi picks up a kid or two who insists on hanging around him to learn the Way of the Sword; they both get significant amounts of time even though they amount to very little in the overall scheme of things. The story of Musashi's final opponent (in the book, anyway), Sasaki Kojiro, is told at considerable length to make him appear to be the antithesis of Musashi's honourable devotion to the sword- yet, at the end of the book, when he is killed by Musashi's wooden sword, he is portrayed as a great and skilled master of the art. The story of Osugi, Musashi's tormentor throughout the book, simply makes no damn sense. And the story of Matahachi and his eventual marriage to Akemi is, as far as I'm concerned, pure filler. If you wanted to know where George R. R. Martin got the idea for stuffing his last two books with so many useless characters, this book is a very good place to start.

This book could easily have been hacked down to one third its current length and still would have been one of the best historical romances ever written. Given its sheer length, uneven pace, irritating side-plots, plethora of unnecessary secondary characters, and various other quirks and flaws that range from mildly to thoroughly vexing, there are other books better worth your time and money.

Didact's Verdict: 2.5/5, very good in places but the flaws really drag the overall quality of the book down.

BONUS: IRON MAIDEN once wrote a song specifically about this legendary warrior, from one of the greatest albums of all time (ironically, a 4-minute filler song on that album happens to be better than a 900-page epic historical novel dealing with the same stuff...)



Comments

  1. I know this is old, but I recently read Eiji Yoshikawa's Taiko (both volumes), and the characters tend to cry very often, specially after difficult situations. I don't know that much about japanese history and old-fashioned costumes, but I thought it was a normal reaction for men at the time, since it was never described as shameful, except in very specific situations. Maybe it's not hahah. If you haven't read Taiko,I highly recommend it. ;)

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