The back cover says that Musashi is the Gone With the Wind of Japan.
And it is hard to disagree with that. Musashi is at once a sweeping epic a la Gone With the Wind and a quest for spiritual discipline through the Way of the Sword (with the body count that you might expect). It’s a great book, and I suspect that anyone who read Shogun by James Clavell and wanted more might find more in this book.
Musashi is interesting because it occupies a rather unique cultural place. It is based on the real historical figure of Minamoto Musashi; the story arc and numerous characters are real. Thus it historical fiction at its finest. Written in instalments for a newspaper in the 1930s, Eiji Yoshikawa is essentially the grandfather of pretty much everything we know about samurais and feudal Japan.
Let me explain. Yoshikawa’s book essentially created the modern idea of the samurai as a figure of popular culture; I suspect he even did this to a certain extent in Japan itself. I was struck by how many aspects of this book have found their way into the samurai movies of the ’50s and ’60s; even the scene in Karate Kid where the one guy snatches flies with his chopsticks is taken directly from Musashi.
Without Musashi, you would not – I repeat – would not, have Star Wars (or rather, you would not have ‘the Force’). Even the idea in Pokemon universe of different ‘trainers’ and fighting styles derives its popularisation largely from the different styles of swordsmanship and sword masters in Musashi. My point is that Yoshikawa by writing this epic at the right moment in Japanese history brought to life and to popular consciousness the “wild west” of feudal Japan. Instead of the samurai simply being an ancient warrior caste – like the way we might think about, say, the ruling aristocracy of the Roman Empire – samurais emerge in this book, yes as cowboys and/or knights, but also as figures on deep personal spiritual journeys. Each samurai is a hero.
That being said there are parts to this book which for a Western reader, tend to clunk a little bit. The central romance is inexplicable by our cultural mores; it’s so pure and chaste as to be literally unbelievable. At best it is “mythic”. The humour also falls flat. Certain characters and certain scenes are clearly meant to be humorous or offer comedic relief; I was only painfully aware of this – it’s an a sort of slapstick humour mixed with a sort of comedy of manners.
But other than that, it’s great. The figure of Musashi is very well done and very well presented. His quest feels real. His actions are powerful and believable. Even better his ascetic quest – largely unfathomable by the other more mundane characters – essentially allows Yoshikawa to embark on a series of character development story arcs which is quite artfully done.
I am deeply impressed Yoshikawa’s ability to balance spiritual, deeply Bhuddist insight with a tale of swashbuckling; romance and drama with keen interpersonal feeling. Read this book, and then go look at how deep and broad its influence has been. You can literally pick out the lines from this book where the idea of ‘the Force’ is essentially inspired from (via the Japanese samurai flicks of the ’50s and ’60s).