Miyamoto Musashi is Japan’s most famous swordsman. The account of his life, meticulously researched and documented by Eiji Yoshikawa in the 1930s, was carefully crafted into English by Charles S Terry 50 years later; a work transparent enough to preserve Yoshikawa’s exquisite poetic style.
This is ostensibly a book of swordsmanship, and includes its share of martial combat, but that element is neither gratuitous nor glamourised – it serves to support rather than blemish the story’s purpose. Musashi transforms himself from a brute and selfish thug, to a hero of great depth and honour. Through the teachings of Takuan Soho and through his own self-discipline and one-pointedness, he transcends his natural capacities in the pursuit of his life’s mission.
Although Musashi was the maven of martial arts in his time, Yoshikawa portrays his many human aspects so as to bring his character into real and living relief – not a mere legend, but a man struggling with failings and weaknesses, in whom one can surely glimpse one’s own self. Never coldly observing from outside any character, Yoshikawa becomes the character and writes straight from that beating heart, or racing mind, or pulsing body. Each character has its place in the tale and its own unique lesson for the reader.
Yoshikawa’s research is such that every angle of the culture and every level of the social hierarchy is revealed in robust detail. The writing is complete and completely satisfying, pristine and elegant. No single word is superfluous, yet no detail is trivial enough for exclusion. One may well take any sentence from any of the 970 pages and let it stand as a striking, intriguing work of prose.
More graceful than grisly, this is the account by one master of another master’s life. Whether you choose to read this book for its historical content, its study of martial arts, its celebration of Japanese culture, its portrayal of human transcendence, or simply as a heroic piece of writing, you will not be disappointed.