Kodansha International, 2004, $24.00
Swordsman, painter, poet and author of The Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi has
become to the Japanese what King Arthur and Robin Hood are to the British and the
world-- a national hero whose true history has been obscured over the centuries by stories,
poems and plays and, since the silent era, movies more fictional than factual.
The translator of The Book of Five Rings and another key text of samurai philosophy,
Hagakure, William Scott Wilson has written exactly the biography of Musashi that we
need: not only a lively, sympathetic, painstakingly researched retelling of his life and
deeds, but a thorough examination of his influence and afterlife in various media,
including a detailed filmography.
One object is to locate the real man within the legend; an impossible task, since
contemporary accounts are often patchy or contradictory. Instead of trying to guess or
invent, Wilson stays close to the written record, noting any discrepancies along the way.
This approach may not satisfy those who want their samurai biographies to read like
novels (they should try Charles Terry's 1981 translation of Eiji Yoshikawa's roman
fleuve Musashi), but will reassure those who like their history straight.
At the same time, Wilson is not a dry recorder of fact. His accounts of Musashi's duels,
including his most famous, with Sasaki Kojiro on Ganryu Island in 1612, often read like
good, unadorned genre fiction:
Kojiro fell where he stood. The tip of his sword had cut through the knot of Musashi's hachimaki, and the hand towel had fluttered to the ground, but Musashi's wooden sword had made a direct hit. Musashi lowered his sword and stood motionless for a moment, then quickly raised it to strike again. Kojiro was lying flat on the ground, but at that moment he wielded his sword to the side in a mowing motion, aiming for Musashi's thigh. Musashi lept back, and received a three-inch cut in the lining of his hakama, probably less than an inch away from his femoral artery.
While providing these and other un-academic thrills, Wilson delves deeply into
Musashi's importance as a cultural figure, referring frequently to his own translation of
The Book of Five Rings. He does not quite answer the question of why this man, who
bowed to no god, belonged to no school (save his own) and rejected both marriage and
steady employment to the end, has never lost his appeal to the Japanese, including the
famously conforming corporate warriors.
Perhaps no one can with any precision, since Musashi is such a protean figure. To prewar
militarists he was a pure-spirited exemplar of traditional values, while to present-day fans
of Inoue Takehiko's comic series Vagabond, which has sold more than twenty-two
million copies in paperback, he is the closest the Edo era ever came to a rock star: wild,
rebellious and the epitome of pony-tailed cool.
Wilson does not argue for the truth of any one Musashi interpretation, though his own
interest lies principally in Musashi the philosopher and sage, whose teachings in The
Book of Five Rings go beyond the proper way to swing a sword to how to live a proper
life -- and are now inspiring readers everywhere, from college dorms to corporate
For those actually learning Japanese swordsmanship, however, Musashi's precepts in The
Book of Five Rings can be maddenly vague:
When your opponent has grasped his sword and set up a broad rhythm, you should use a short rhythm. If your opponent has a short rhythm you should use a broad one.
In other words, hit 'em where they ain't. But unlike inspirational business books filled
with feel-good platitudes, there is a hard core of wisdom in Musashi that shines though
even the most enigmatic precept or dullest translation. With affection and dedication,
Wilson brings it to us bright and clear.
Mark Schilling has been reviewing Japanese films for The Japan Times since 1989. His
publications include The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture (Weatherhill, 1997),
Contemporary Japanese Film (Weatherhill, 1999) and The Yakuza Movie Book -- A
Guide to Japanese Gang Films (Stone Bridge Press, 2003). He also has a first-degree
black belt in Aikido.