EPS Review #75 - Musashi

Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa, tr. Charles S. Terry, Kodansha 1981 (c. 1971), 970 pp.

I read this book with great relish, smoothing my hand over its wide pages like the cheek of a statue of Kannon. [ Sadly the current in-print edition at Amazon has a dorky cover. ] I think this is the only Japanese novel I have read that has the simple narrative drive of Dickens or Dumas. Musashi (then called Takezo) starts off as a ronin on the wrong side of the battle of Sekigahara (in 1600, consolidating the Tokugawa rule ). He and his village friend Matahachi escape and hole up briefly with Akemi and her mother Oko, who have been busy robbing corpses. Matahachi had been engaged to Otsu -- the girl back home and the (somewhat-annoying) ideal Japanese woman. But he is incurably weak-willed and runs off with Akemi. Musashi returns home, to be hunted by both the Shogun's men and Osugi, Matachachi's mother, who blames Musashi for her son's disappearance. Musashi is saved by the priest Takuan, who strings him up in a tree to tame his animal nature, and then locks him away with some books. (Yes, this is the Takuan who invented the yellow radish pickle you may be familiar with: what a man!) If you add in Sasaki Kojiro (aka Ganryu) -- Musashi's supreme yet soul-less opponent -- you have nearly all the main characters in the book. At least it doesn't get confusing!

In the introduction, Reischauer compares "Musashi" to "Gone with the Wind", and says that Musashi forms part of the "idealised self-image" of the contemporary Japanese, which is a nice antithesis to the better-known surface conformity. Musashi is committed single-mindedly to the Way of the Sword. He exposes himself to the elements, mortifies his desire for Otsu (I forgot to mention that she falls in love with him), and always strives to be a better swordsman. But this, for him, includes being a better farmer, and a better artist. For Sasaki, the sword is just about being the best, and killing. Their confrontation is the climax of the book.

But there is loads of fun along the way. For one thing, the book is a leisurely travelogue of Japan, from the provinces to Edo. If you have ever lived in Tokyo, it is fun to read about bandits living in caves in Dogenzaka, now part of the consumer wonderland that is Shibuya. The language is very natural, for which credit presumably goes to the translator. And I like details such as an old lady coming out to talk, folding her hands behind her and staring up at the sky instead of at her interlocutor.

The swordfights are back-to-reality after seeing so many typical special-effect movie fights. They are short. You can imagine that a single blow from a sword, or even a stick, is all it really takes to kill someone. Perfectibility is a big deal here. To me it is more of an acceptable narrative myth than something you can really believe. My favorite example is the cut peony stem. Musashi wants to duel with a master who has retired from the world to his tea hut. When Musashi sees the peony sent in reply to the challenge, he realises that he is too inferior even to trouble a man who could make a slice like that. This is recalled when he meets the master artist Koetsu:

Yagyu Sekishusai, he recalled, was devoting his old age to the Way of Tea, and Takuan had also spoken of its virtues. Looking down at the tea bowl and the cloth beneath it, he suddenly envisioned the white peony from Sekishusai's garden and felt again the thrill it had given him. Now, inexplicably, the tea bowl struck him in the same forceful way. He wondered for a moment if he had gasped out loud.

He reached out, picked up the bowl lovingly and placed it on his knee. His eyes shone as he examined it; he felt an excitement he had never experienced before. As he studied the bottom of the vessel and the traces of the potter's spatula, he realised that the lines had the same keenness as Sekishusai's slicing of the peony stem. This unpretentious bowl, too, had been made by a genius. It revealed the touch of the spirit, the mysterious insight.

That's hot stuff, I think. I also enjoyed the esthetics in the geisha district, when Musashi pops off to fight the Yoshioka school, and then comes back. This is also one of the striking scenes in the movie: the strange dance with what looks like a curtain-rope, and the alien doll-like girl in the snow.

Speaking of the movies, a friend sent all three DVDs to me as soon as I finally got a DVD player. The story is changed somewhat. But their main feature, I thought, was the beauty of the kimono! And the actors and actresses.

By the way, Musashi really existed. But I think Yoshikawa made up a lot. One web page I found suggested that Ganryu was an honorable man, and Musashi an upstart. Three Japanese towns claim to be Musashi's birthplace. There also seems to be a silly/revisionist play/movie about what "really" happened on Ganryu island. Anyway, I will certainly read more by Yoshikawa, and am particularly interested in his memoirs (Fragments of a Past).

John wrote: Curious that a book about a renegade loner was so popular in the 1930s here [Japan]; not exactly a period we associate with a cult of individuality. One possibility is that Musashi consistently fought against Tokugawa (unsuccessfully) and the military dictatorship may have had a calculation along the lines: Emperor good implies anyone who fought against Tokugawa was bad. Even so, however ...

I wrote: Reischauer's forward says that Musashi shows that Japanese are individualists under the skin.

John wrote: Yeah, I understand about the individualists and all, but you'd think that a totalitarian military dictatorship would censor this sort of thing.

I wrote: Musashi may have lived under the Shogunate, but Yoshikawa did not:

Eiji Yoshikawa was born in 1892 in Kanagawa Prefecture, near Tokyo. He began his literary career at the age of twenty-two. During his thirties he worked as a journalist while continuing to write stories and novels, reaching a large and appreciative readership through having his work published, often serially, in newspapers and popular magazines. At the time of his death in 1962, he was one of Japan's best-known and best-loved novelists. He received the Cultural Medal, the highest award for a man of letters, and other cultural decorations, including the Order of the Sacred Treasure.

John wrote: Musashi was written in the 1930s, right in the middle of the military dictatorship here. In fact, the history of Japan that I have, by Jansen, suggests that, starting with the Meiji restoration, the government frowned on individualistic tales, and that these became popular here only after the end of WWII. But Musashi seems to be an exception. It isn't a veiled attack on the government, so I'm not that surprised it wasn't censored, but it also isn't a tale of self sacrifice by a samurai loyal to the emperor.

Luke wrote: Interesting discussion. I have read Yoshikawa's Shin Heike Monogatari (which is a good read but quite naturally plays with facts) but not his Musashi. The real Musashi was a misfit and could not keep a job but he was not consistently anti-Tokugawa. I don't know about him in the novel. I agree with John's point about the Meiji government applauding anti-Tokugawa stories as good. As for the issue of censorship in the 1930's, here are some of my thoughts. Censorship mainly was focused on sexual content, communist content, and explicitly anti-government content. Its hands were full just with that. Whether or not the government censors wanted to promote or not individualistic tales was not a matter of censorship but of government sponsorship. After 1941 when the issue of paper rationing comes on the scene the government presumably had more control over content, as it had to approve the use of a scarce commodity. Even so, there remains a greater range of content in publishing than in film, which was more tightly controlled.

As for the character of the government itself it formally remained an elected government right up to 1945, but nevertheless slid gradually into a military statist/fascist government from 1931-1945 (This is a lesson we should not forget, but no more comment here). It was never really a dictatorship. If I were to give a timeline of the descent into hell it would start with the 1931 invasion of Manchuria, ostensibly to rid it of evil warlords who threatened the local populace and Japanese security, and to bring peace and the economic benefits of civilization to a benighted people (No comment). This began to put them on a wartime footing. Right wing soldiers murdered the Prime Minister in 1932, but they were defeated and suppressed by the government. Popular sentiment was mixed. Following the Lytton report in 1933 they withdrew from the League of Nations deeming it hopelessly biased, ineffectual and not up to the task of a new world order (No comment). This isolated them from the other powers of the world and led the government to be more fearful of enemies within--mainly communists and socialists. Another right wing soldier coup attempt in 1936 was also suppressed. 1937 the invasion of the rest of China and the National Wartime Mobilization Ordinance signaled the beginning of a fully wartime government. 1940 the "voluntary" dissolution of all but one political party and of most labor unions and tenants unions represents the beginning of what I would call fascism or statist ideology , and there does develop an extreme paranoia against internal enemies. The dance halls are all closed that year. In 1941 the attacks on the various western colonial possession turned the whole thing into a kind of holy war.