Epic as Sharp as a Samurai's Sword

NOW that ``Shogun,'' the musical, has hit Broadway to less than favorable reviews, after the best-selling book and the TV miniseries and after you think you've heard more than you ever want to hear about feudal Japan, it's time to give credit to the real Shogun. ``Musashi,'' a lengthy Japanese epic written in 1935, is practically the national novel of Japan. Published in book form 14 times, it has been the basis of seven movies and three television miniseries. Why it gets this much attention is easy to see. ``Musashi'' is spellbinding adventure.

The book first appeared in Japan in serialized form over a four-year span. That explains the format. The book has seven sections, each divided into many short chapters. Each chapter leaves some puzzle unsolved, some incident unresolved to make the reader hurry on to see what happens next. Only a feat of extraordinary writing can keep the reader going for so long.

``Musashi'' is, in effect, the Bildungsroman of a samurai. The reader experiences the hero's life surrounded by a maelstrom of activity and connected by dozens of other characters. Interwoven throughout are love stories and tragic sagas: mothers and sons, artists and craftsmen, soldiers and politicians, ne'er-do-wells and nobility. There are classic tales of treachery and betrayal and, befitting a book about a warrior class, more battles and fights than you can shake a sword at.

The main character, Miyamoto Musashi, is based on a man who lived in the mid 1600s. Every samurai or ronin (samurai free agent) he meets wants to have a crack at him, and most do - but only once. He bests them all and quickly. The book starts with Musashi lying wounded on a battlefield. He's taken in by a woman and her daughter. When he's well, he begins his quest to find the ``Way,'' the true life of a samuarai.

Like most legendary heroes, he is endowed with supernatural strength and abilities. He is so quick he disappears if his opponents blink, so strong he gives new meaning to the verb smite. But he realizes that becoming a true samurai takes more than honing physical attributes and killing other swordsmen. As an old wise samurai puts it, ``Your strength is your problem. You must learn to control it, become weaker.''pp. 161

``Musashi'' becomes a study in self-discipline. ``Fighting isn't all there is to the Art of War,'' Musashi says. ``The men who think that way, and are satisfied to have food to eat and a place to sleep, are mere vagabonds. A serious student is much more concerned with training his mind and disciplining his spirit than with developing martial skills.''pp. 183-184

Perfection in all things and absolute inner strength and self-knowledge are his goals. That would constitute attainment of the Way.

Listen to how he berates himself for stepping on a board with a nail in it. ```Is there no way to resist an enemy of this sort?' he asked himself several times. `The nail was pointed upward and plainly visible. I stepped on it because I was half asleep - no, blind, because my spirit is not yet active throughout my whole body. What's more, I let the nail penetrate deep, proof my reflexes are slow. If I'd been in perfect control, I would have noticed the nail as soon as the bottom of my sandal touched it.'

``His trouble, he concluded, was immaturity. His body and his sword were still not one; though his arms grew strong every day, his spirit and the rest of his body were not in tune. It felt to him, in his self-critical frame of mind, like a crippling deformity.''

It wouldn't be an epic without a central love story. Two women love Musashi and one follows him everywhere. Musashi constantly struggles with his desire for her and the incompatibility of the domestic life and the nomadic life of a samurai. ``If the talents I was born with are the right ones, I may someday achieve my goal. If not, I may go through life being as stupid as I am now. But now I'm faced with the possibility of dying soon. How can a man with that prospect make vows for the future to a woman as young as Otsu.''pp. 492

And there's evil in this book - personified by a treacherous samurai who kills at the merest insult and who constantly tries to ambush Musashi and steal his lover. Their final fight is the climax of the book.

Like all growing heroes, Musashi makes mistakes. The worst is when he kills the 12-year-old heir to one of the oldest samurai schools in a battle. Haunted by his actions and the memory of the boy's dead body, he atones by vowing to become ever more adept at self-control.

After you travel with Musashi for a while you start to feel that this is one man who is very hard on himself. Nothing gets in the way of his goals. He is constantly trying to make himself better. You start to see the seeds of the Japanese character in these aspects. And you begin to see how they have forged such a daunting civilization.

To be sure, Musashi takes self-denial and discipline to an extreme. But the idea that sacrifice is a normal, even necessary, part of life and that the drive for perfection is a valid aim is valuable these days. That's what heroes are for. They are supposed to be better than we are; they are supposed to make us want to be better than we are.

But ``Musashi'' is not just a didactic tool. The book is also very funny. (At one point Musashi writes in his notebook, ``Do not attempt to oppose the way of the universe. But first make sure you know the way of the universe.'')pp 663 In fact it's hard to say what this book lacks. It is a true epic. It has characters to enjoy, morals to digest, history to carry it along and, unlike ``Shogun,'' nothing even remotely Western about it. That's perhaps it's greatest appeal: escape. You are in another world when you read ``Musashi,'' and it's a world you don't want to leave, even after almost 1,000 pages.

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