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October 12, 2006

Miyamoto Musashi - Lone samurai or samurai legend?

Why is swordsman Miyamoto Musashi so popular? We know almost nothing about him and what we know with any certainty is not very spectacular. Is it because he is the author of The Book of Five Rings? Or is it thanks to the novel by Yoshikawa Eiji and the films by Inagaki and other directors? It is a real enigma, especially as Musashi was not at all very well known in his own time and only seems to have gathered fame long after his death, the legend accelerating in the 20th c.

That legend then, is that not all there is? I often have the feeling that Miyamoto Musashi is not a real figure, but a blending of the scant facts from several, different persons: the legend of the young, hotheaded swordfighter has grown together with the life of the martial arts teacher of the Hosokawa clan in Kumamoto, and on the way sucked up the works of a painter called Niten. Or am I too skeptical?

Thanks to the Sunday-drama series of the NHK, 2004 was a Miyamoto Musashi year in Japan and Kodansha took that opportunity to ask Japanologist and translator (Hagakure; The Book of Five Rings; Taiko) William Scott Wilson to write a book about the legendary swordfighter: The lone Samurai. The author goes back to the original documents and tries to sort out their conflicting claims, which is no easy job. Too little is known for sure, too much is based on just one source without corroborating evidence. For example, we do not even know on which side the famous Miyamoto Musashi fought in the greatest conflicts of his time, the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and the two campaigns against Osaka Castle and the Toyotomi in 1615.

Wilson basically does a good job, but there is so little to tell about Miyamoto Musashi that he often has to pad his story by in detail relating historical circumstances and informing us about the lives of other people who lived in Musashi's time. This is in itself not bad, as it gives us the full historical and cultural picture, but the author goes too far when he speculates that Takuan, a famous Zen monk of the early 17th c., and Musashi must have known each other. That is not scholarship but fiction - in the novel by Yoshikawa Eiji Takuan figures as the teacher of Musashi.

The detailed discussions of several of Musashi's art works are welcome, but here, too, I have a lingering doubt: if Musashi was not considered as the artist, would these paintings still be discussed in terms of being painted with the "sharp eye of the swordsman?" Isn't that an interpolation from supposed facts?

The part I liked best in the whole book was unfortunately printed in smaller letters than what went before, as if it were less important: an overview of the growth of the Musashi legend, and the development of his story in Yoshikawa Eiji's novel and several films, all the way to a recent manga, Vagabond. Perhaps because I see Musashi as basically an interesting legend and a good story and consider him very problematical as history, to me this section should be the basis of all Musashi books instead of being treated as an appendix.

That being said, I am grateful to Wilson for including this detailed account (Lone Samurai is the only Musashi book that does so) and on the whole can recommend this book to all, newcomers and those who already have a basic knowledge about the subject alike, as an excellent introduction to the Musashi legend.