Book: Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa

Interesting Japanese historical novel; alas, probably more interesting than good to most people

Eiji Yoshikawa
Kodnsha International, 1995 (originally published in English in 1981)
ISBN: 4-7700-1957-2
970 pages

Musashi is a historical novel about Miyamoto Musashi*, perhaps Japan's most famous swordsman. He lived from the late sixteenth century until the early seventeenth century. The book was written by Eiji Yoshikawa and was first published in serial form in 1935 in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. (This edition is ably translated by Charles S. Terry.) The book is an interesting look into how a Japanese writer of 1935 might think about and write about the life of a Japanese ronin (that is, a samurai without ties to a feudal lord) of three hundred years earlier. But a twenty-first century reader of English who is looking for either a cracking adventure story or ready insight into the culture of late feudal Japan is not likely to be entirely satisfied.

As the book begins, Musashi (then called Shinmen Takezo) and another young man from the farming village of Miyamoto, Honiden Matahachi, come back to consciousness in the aftermath of the battle of Sekigahara. They had gone to war seeking adventure and were lucky not to lose their lives when their side lost. They take refuge from the patrols that are looking for survivors in a nearby farmhouse with a mother and daughter, Oko and Akemi. Musashi and Matahachi recuperate until there's some trouble with a band of local ruffians. Musashi and Matahachi each kill one and drive the rest off, but enough remain alive that the district isn't safe for any of them any longer. Musashi and Matahachi plan to return home, but when Musashi wakes on the day they intend to leave, he finds that Matahachi has already left with the women and he doesn't know what direction they've gone in.

Musashi does return to Miyamoto but finds that soldiers are looking for him there and have arrested his sister. He resolves to free her but instead gets caught himself. He's not caught by soldiers, but rather by a clever and puckish itinerant Buddhist priest, Takuan Soho. Having received some useful spiritual lessons from the priest, he escapes with the assistance of Otsu, a young orphan woman who was being raised by the priests of the local Buddhist temple and who was betrothed to Matahachi. They leave town together, but Musashi soon says that he must go rescue his sister and that he will meet Otsu later. The pair's departure further enrages Osugi, Matahachi's mother, who is sure that something bad has happened to Matahachi and that Musashi is responsible. She summons her son-in-law, Gon, and they resolve to catch up to and punish the pair.

That summary takes up up through about page 85 and it's a fair taste of the book. Needless to say, it's a picaresque story, with numerous characters and many chance meetings between people (often inconvenient ones), meetings missed (often ones that would have been convenient), misunderstandings, and mistaken assumptions about people's intentions. The story goes on for a decade and more. In its course, the book contrasts Musashi with Matahachi (Musashi has a good deal more discipline) and also with another swordsman, Sasaki Kojiro (who has more native ability but less discipline to learn to use it). There's also a love-story of a sort between Musashi and Otsu.

The book is set in a relatively interesting period in Japanese history. The battle of Sekigahara is considered to be the pivotal event in Tokugawa Ieyasu's assuming the shogunate and ushering in the Edo period in Japanese history. And we get to see some of that. Merchants are becoming prosperous and we see the shogun's new palace being built in Edo (the city was renamed Tokyo when the emperor moved into that palace). That era was one largely of peace and prosperity, though at the cost of a rather rigid, stratified, and insular society. I'm sure that Mr Yoshikawa intends the reader to consider that Japan's greatest swordsman lived just as the era of wandering ronin was coming to an end.

The book reminds me of nothing so much as a Dickensian picaresque novel, albeit one in which the main character does get into a some swordfights. That's a perfectly fine thing for the book to be, but by modern standards it's not a page-turner and it's nearly 1000 pages long.

* In Japan, Japanese names are given family-name first. When Japanese people expect to have a Western audience, they (with characteristic politeness and accommodation) routinely give their names given-name first. But some texts in English strive to be especially authentic and so give Japanese names in Japanese order. Doing that, of course, can create a certain amount of confusion if the reader doesn't know which sort they're reading. This book gives Japanese names family-name first with the exception of the author's name. I have followed the book's style but have omitted some diacritical marks.

Posted: Fri - June 11, 2010 at 08:17 PM   Main   Category: