"Musashi" by Eiji Yoshikawa

Discussion in 'Other Literature' started by Diziet Sma, Oct 1, 2017.

  1. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Similarly to The Book of the Five Rings written by the historical figure of Musashi, Yoshikawa structures his narrative based on the premise of the classical elements: Earth, Water, and Fire. These three books comprise my edition of The Legend of the Samurai I have just completed.
    The starting point of the novel is the battle of Sekigahara, in which Tazeko fought in the losing army. After surviving this battle, Tazeko's point of inflection takes place when confronted by the wonderful character, the monk Takuan. Tazeko becomes then Musashi and decides to follow the way of the sword.

    I like how Yoshikawa incorporates, in his own journalistic style, the historical facts which I can't help feeling was a priority for him: to divulge and educate his readers. He equally introduces element belonging to the folklore and the Zen philosophy without forgetting elements of the way of the sword still so admired in Yoshikawa's time.
    Musashi narrative pace is measured and steady without drastic changes and in a way it is very reflective of the idiosyncrasy of the Rising Sun country.
    There is this quote by Yoshikawa, which I think reflects this point very well: (this is my own free translation)

    Any human being might not reach the height of their powers when acting hastily.

    This means the reader needs to adapt to the unhurried and laconic style characteristic of the feudal Japan of the S XVII, which in my opinion is one of the main assets of Musashi.

    There are some characters besides Musashi himself whom I find fascinating, one is the monk Takuan and the other is Jotaro, Musashi's apprentice, a real tinker who introduces a strong sense of picaresque in the story. Others fill in their respective roles of villains, antagonists, and loyal followers.

    I do usually struggle to keep track of the topographical names and in Musashi with all its Japanese terms has been challenging. However, the map included has been extremely valuable.
    Then, there is also the issue of the translation work. I can’t help but think there is much getting lost in the process of transferring and conveying the story between two such different languages and cultures. Regardless, as I don’t read Japanese this is a useless and lame complaint.

    Musashi has been, up to this point, a wonderful read not just for its epic scope but for its historical significance, its Zen philosophy content, and social depiction of the feudal Japan during Musashi’s era.

    As soon as I complete Musashi, I do want to watch the film Samurai: Musashi Miyamoto, 1954 by Hiroshi Inagaki
  2. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    Right now I'm at the point where Musashi and Seijūrō have had their duel.

    The single best chapter so far for me has been "Eagle Mountain", where a febrile Musashi climbs up to the top of a mountain peak thinking that by doing so he's asserting himself against Sekishusai, whom he sees at this point as unconquerable given Sekishusai's psychological depth and rarefied spiritual elegance against his own immature level of development.

    As it's a proper historical novel, these passages on the history of the land really set the tone and scene very well. What I love is that with some simple, broad strokes, Yoshikawa not only gives an outline of who the major figures are, but also gets into geography, aggregate political affiliations of the people and their various points of contentions, right down to the smallest murmurings, hopes and discontentedness of so many separate classes of people from farmers, merchants, prostitutes, priests, freebooters, etc., you name it, all of which sets the mood and atmosphere of the period so well. And there's always some humour in many of the utterings, dialogue and scenes between these people.

    Love Takuan and Jōtarō. The're both such rascals and provide brilliant comic relief. But in their comedy are some deep lessons. From Takuan's side it's usually a matter of an application of Zen perspectives; on Jōtarō's side, when he isn't simply being cheeky or unusually precocious, are some down-to-earth truths that are pointed out with a frankness that only children seem to be capable of, especially when some of the adults around them have layers of experience, preconceived notions and biases that might block them from seeing something as it really is.

    I don't think there are any real villains in the story. Antagonists, sure. Or the only proper 'villain' is Sasaki Kojirō. While there are some pretty despicable and pathetic characters that are showcased as a contrast to the paths of self-knowledge and purity (in intent) that Musashi and Ōtsu are set on, no one really takes the kind of pleasure in others' suffering as does Kojirō. He feels a strong sense of power at putting others down, both physically and psychologically. He is the total opposite of Musashi; full of ego and solipsism at its worst, most hardened level, whereas Musashi's whole journey is a concentrated effort to completely extinguish his ego (or, at least, that's what he will realise the ultimate goal of his Way of the Sword is, much like Takuan's Way of Learning - but they're one and the same, as Takuan pointed out to him early on in the village of Miyamoto).
  3. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Kojiro definitely but I would also argue Osugi is also a villain: what a bitch! Her hatred towards Musashi goes well the reason of restoring her family honour. She knows Matahachi is weak and an undignifying son. Osugi cannot blame not take it on the Gods so she goes after Musashi.

    I have started Sun and Moon.
  4. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    Crap, forgot about Ōsugi! Damn, she is despicable! Wrapped up so fully as she is in that utter delusion of false and misplaced pride, to the point that her own face-saving is more important than any professed concern for her worthless son's happiness. She's become so twisted that she takes such absolute glee at the grisly thought of taking innocent Ōtsu's head back to the village as vindication of a slight that exists only in her head. Ōsugi and Kojirō, then, the two main villains.

    For me, the most pathetic character of them all is Matahachi: coward, filled with delusions of grandeur, liar extraordinaire, and a weak-willed, scavenging opportunist, all of it underscored by this thick skein of jealousy and covetousness. Like his mother, Matahachi continually blames his inadequacies on others and, when faced with the reality of someone like the self-reflective/-critical Musashi who's entire purpose of being seems to be geared to self-improvement, that inadequacy in himself turns not to inspiration to better himself, but shame and then resentment since that's such an easier emotion to give oneself over to than actually making the effort. Musashi has strength to face up to himself; Matahachi only knows to foist the blame for his own shortcomings on to the actions or temperaments of others.
  5. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    I've gotten to the point now where Musashi has accepted the final duel with the Yoshioka school and has parted with Jōtarō again. This is right after he leaves the licensed quarter. I had completely forgotten how much I enjoyed this section: his stay and interaction with some of the nobles and top merchants of the city, and his foray into the the exotic world of courtesans. You understand how the sophisticates and aesthetes all see Musashi - as a rustic and crude bumpkin, although Kōetsu and his mother do value him greatly. I think his time spent with the master craftsman Hon'ami Kōetsu and his adorable mother, and also the lessons learned from Yoshino Tayū when she compares a human being to her lute, is one of the critical stages of his development and self-realisation, as much so as that first meeting with Takuan and his understanding of Sekishusai's superiority just by seeing his zen-like garden and reading the haiku poems written at the gate. Inflection points, as you said so well earlier. He gains an appreciation for the subtleties of being, and it's the first time that he probably truly realises the priest Nikkan's warning to him at the temple of Hōzōin when Nikkan said, "you are too strong," or something to that effect. Musashi begins to learn how to become gentler, "weaker", more relaxed; he tempers his animal-like intensity/savagery (that strong flight-or-fight response that seems to be perpetually switched on) and realises that refined pursuits such as the arts are as important to the development of the spirit as his pursuit of swordsmanship. His narrow focus consequently starts to become more whole and well-rounded; it brings greater harmony to his being. It's an important step towards his becoming more properly 'human'.

    There's an echo of what it means to be 'human' in the Bene Gesserit ethos that the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam imparts to Paul when she has the Gom Jabbar at this neck and forces him to undergo the trial of pain to find out whether he is truly 'human'. That same motif of overcoming atavistic animal instincts - which 99.99% of the 'human' population is ruled by - and rising to some sort of transcendent self-awareness beyond base ego is common to both stories. Hence why Musashi hopes that he will meet more 'humans' on his journey - the only true humans his having met so far being Takuan, Nikkan, Sekishusai (although he never has a vis-à-vis encounter with the retired samurai), and now someone like Kōetsu.
    Last edited: Oct 4, 2017
    Diziet Sma likes this.
  6. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Nicely put!

    I think Yoshikawa delivers what the original Musashi probably wished to achieve and that is the equilibrium between his internal fire, his intrinsic strength and the perfection he searched in his actions. And, in my opinion, this the real story, everything else serves this purpose.

    I can’t help comparing Musashi to Don Quijote. Initially, the time frame was too close to be ignored but then I find there is a strong connection on how both characters decide to follow their respective paths of the sword at the expense of being misunderstood and being considered fools. It matters not: there is a clarity in their minds and purpose in their actions, which leave no room for cowardice in their hearts. Even Jōtarō or Iori could play well the role of Sancho Panza.
  7. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    I have finished Sun and Moon and although this was still a very good story, it has been my least favorite so far. I’m feeling less concerned with the fortuitous events and encounters of the rest of the characters. Instead, I would have liked to read more about Musashi's own growth following the way of the sword.

    I will start the final section, The Perfect Ligh, in a few days.
  8. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    I've been taking a little break from reading Musashi, but I'm at the point where Jōtarō has now hooked up with Daizo and will stay with him for a while. Akemi has made an appearance with that troupe of prostitutes on the way to Edo, and her nervous, capricious disposition lands her in trouble again...the kind of men who abuse her most seem to make a beeline straight for her. Musashi is still searching for the kidnapped Otsū, little knowing that it's the weak-willed, easily persuaded and jealous Matahachi who has taken her. Best part about Musashi's development is that after meeting that samurai who was specifically looking for him to recruit him as a vassal for Lord Date, he has finally begun to wonder at the meaning of personal development beyond the mechanics of the sword and the strictures of the Bushido code. He's now begun to wonder at the possibility of enlightenment, of the sort that figures like the Buddha or Mahavir or Christ might have worked towards. This line of questioning into the ultimate nature of the universe, and the congruity between man and nature and even society, will lead Musashi to my favourite part of the novel, where he takes up farming and gains a newfound and higher appreciation for life.

    You say that Musashi reminds you of Don Quixote, but to me the similarity is strongest with Tolstoy and with his Anna Karenina. Not only does Yoshikawa paint grand, panoramic sweeps of society through its many strata in a vein equivalent to that of Tolstoy, and also in comparably simple and warm language, but there is also kinship between the characters Miyamoto Musashi and Constantin Levin. They both strive for harmony between themselves and society whilst attempting to remain true to their personal moral purpose, even if they must make adjustments and navigate [in Jungian terms at its most superficial] the chaos with which their journey is littered and discover the underlying order within which finally brings them to unity and harmony. And as Musashi's tenure as a farmer is one of the highlights for me in Yoshikawa's novel, so too are the passages describing the lives of Levin's country serfs as they harvest fields one of my favourite parts of Tolstoy's work.
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2017
  9. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    I find it amusing and fetching how all the main characters keep bumping into each other as they travel the country. There is a strong sense of fatalism in Musashi. How, regardless of crossing repeatedly each others' life, they behave in a foreseeable way. It almost feels like a lament about missing opportunities and chances, for those characters, who could act rightfully if courage and clarity in their vision prevailed. Well, in the end as the saying goes: "a leopard never changes its spots".
    Yoshikawa’s narrative style is not one which allows for big surprises. It keeps a pace and a tone throughout.

    Yes. Good point. Don Quijote came to my mind first and given its far more satiric tone, I guess Anna Karenina would bear better comparison with Musashi.

  10. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    I know, right? These coincidental meetings are both quaint and romantic. It's one of the reasons why the book really is a proper romance as opposed to a novel. One explanation can be that because the mode of travel was by foot, and the regions traversed, while extensive enough for their time, had fewer major cities or other important locations that might have acted as waystations where people were prone to congregate or pass through. But I guess the main reason for such coincidences is for Yoshikawa to contrast this cast of characters - their lack of self-awareness and the automatic following through of their programmed behavioural patterns to their own detriment - against Musashi's conscious effort to eliminate negative traits or other deficiencies in himself and to quickly learn lessons at the earliest available opportunity. And the main route he takes to achieve his goal is to be a martinet unto himself. Just about all the other characters lack any sort of discipline. Except for Otsū in her single-minded devotion. And perhaps Osugi - her own single-mindedness to follow through on her path of vengeance against perceived slights also requires discipline, and it's one of the reasons why others find her grit awesome and mistakenly accord her respect which she really doesn't deserve.
  11. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Finished The Perfect Light and hence the final book in the trilogy of Musashi.
    After following Musashi in his way of the sword for one thousand and odd pages, I feel he has taken me by the hand and dropped me mercilessly down the rabbit hole of the Zen philosophy, swordplay and eastern folklore. I now have to explore further books into this theme and add probably a few to my already vertiginous reading list.

    The final section of Musashi has felt tedious at times, those parts in which Yoshikawa follows the insufferable Otsū, the evil Osugi and some other characters.
    What I was really craving for was the final metamorphosis of Musashi, and this has been, in my view, frugally described. The completion of Musashi’s search is left, in a way, open to be interpreted by the reader. And probably this was a wise choice as following the path of the sword must be a toil of individual discovery, where the subtle balance of body, heart, and soul means a personal and unique quest. Nevertheless, I felt hungry for more and I didn’t get it.
    Now, the final 5% of the book is simply extraordinary. The tension and beauty of the narrative are overwhelming in their simplicity. I shouldn’t feel surprised about this as it has been consistent with Yoshikawa’s style throughout. Nevertheless, when I reached page 1047 and realised this was The End, I thought: "Nooooooo! Damn you, Musashi, you just can’t leave me like that” but that’s him: Perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye.
  12. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

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