It all started with Vagabond, a manga by Takehiko Inoue. It’s a fictionalized, historical account of one of the most famous samurai in Japanese history, a guy known as Musashi after the place he’s from. This manga is so beautifully illustrated, war and all, with each character clearly modeled on human faces (rather than stylized), and so much of the emotional side of the story told through expressions—just fantastic artwork. Inoue also took the time to draw entire pages of grass blades or bark texture, bringing the epic element in through the pictures. And the story is layered, with many characters, each practically leaping from the page with personality. I quickly read through volume 37, the most recent English translation, but I wanted to know more. Specifically, I wanted more words, as in a novel.
Inoue based his manga, which according to Wikipedia has sold more than 82 million copies worldwide, on a now classic novel by Eiji Yoshikawa called Musashi. Yoshikawa’s novel was originally serialized in the 30’s in Japanese newspapers. The English hardback, an abridged version of the story, clocks in at 970 pages of small print. I had found more words.
Musashi was a swordsman who lived from 1584 to 1645. Days before his death, he finished his own book on the Way of the warrior called the Book of Five Rings (Go Rin No Sho). In the intro he provides a few biographical words, including that he killed his first samurai in a duel at the age of 13. Musashi traveled, building his skills and eventually developing the famed two-sworded fighting technique. The Book of Five Rings provides terse instructions on the Way, moving beyond fighting techniques and accentuated with interspersed reminders that points “must be understood deeply.” The version I read, translated by Ashikaga Yoshiharu, was incredibly slim, with beautiful artwork and only a few paragraphs of text per illustrated page. The book is a historical gem—holding myself back, I wrote out eight pages worth of notes from the Book of Five Rings. Despite writing a book on the topic, Musashi prefaced his work with a warning and advice: “There are no words to explain in detail this Way, but it can be understood intuitively. Study this book” (Musashi 58).
Yoshikawa clearly built his historical novel with the Book of Five Rings close at hand because Musashi’s laconic instructions were illustrated through fictionalized events, making Musashi the novel a sort of companion book to the Book of Five Rings in a very cool way. I was glad that I’d read the Book of Five Rings prior to the novel.
Musashi starts with the Battle of Sekigahara and two boys who’ve decided they’ll leave their village and instantly become famous samurai by participating in the fight. In Vagabond, Inoue’s field of corpses was incredibly evocative. The boys survive, and we begin to see their differing natures, with two boys from the same background taking very different paths. Yoshikawa used characterization to underscore the traditional theme that we cannot sway from our true natures, along with the medieval standby that the class we are born into also speaks for us, which is likely why Inoue chose to reveal one character as adopted in order to speak for his weakness. Inoue and Yoshikawa don’t always follow the plot or characterization in entirely the same way; however, while the differences are interesting, for the most part they seem to be holding true to the same undercurrents of meaning in the story. Inoue provides a more impactful character arc for the protagonist, with Musashi’s youthful arrogance very much highlighted, while Yoshikawa fills in historical blanks with increased opportunities for education, bringing Musashi more quickly to a higher level of awareness. Inoue spends more time with different swordsmen, sating the hunger many readers must have for samurai, but Yoshikawa allows for a closer look at the worlds of the female characters, both noble and ignoble. (Osugi even managed to stalk me in a dream one night.) The cast of characters is remarkably haunting.
Both stories follow multiple characters interweaving through battles and growth, idealizing the good samurai of yore as men capable of austere training and enlightenment while working through trial after trial. Yoshikawa’s novel builds up to the duel between Musashi and his adversary Kojiro. Prior to his battle, Musashi creates a painting for his host, thinking, “Men’s bodies fade away, but ink lives on. The image of his heart would continue to breathe after he himself was gone” (Yoshikawa 958). Likewise, Musashi the samurai has lived on through the ink of his paintings, the Book of Five Rings, and the various fictitious renditions of his life. Read the stories, and these characters will continue to breathe through you, as well. Highly recommended.